In "Missing Mom," Joyce Carol Oates revisits Mt. Ephraim, the tiny New York town brought to life in her 1996 Oprah selection...

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“Missing Mom” by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco Press, 434 pp., $25.95

In “Missing Mom,” Joyce Carol Oates revisits Mt. Ephraim, the tiny New York town brought to life in her 1996 Oprah selection, “We Were the Mulvaneys,” this time painting the hamlet in far darker hues.

Shortly after the novel commences on Mother’s Day in 2004, 56-year-old widow Gwen Eaton disappears, plunging her two daughters into grief. Punky, pierced and fiercely independent, Nikki takes it the hardest — and with her narrating we hear all about it.

Nikki describes how she regresses, fights with her controlling sister and tumbles backward into memory. How shortly after the disappearance she moved into her dead mother’s home.

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Like many of the Princeton writer’s novels, “Missing Mom” has a pulpish cast, from the spring-loaded plot to the dark and stormy cast of characters — and Oates knows just when to inject a bit of genre flare into the mix.

Gwen, as it turns out, was murdered in the middle of the day by an ex-con while doing her chores — as if somehow simply being a woman was a life-threatening state of being. It would be easy to overdo this theme, but Oates holds back.

Layering on the detail, she draws out the differences between Nikki and her older sister, crafting another intense meditation on the balance of domestication and desire in womanhood.

Even as “Missing Mom” winds down toward an ostensibly happy ending, danger lurks in the margins — a reminder that, no matter how hard a woman strives, her poise can be stolen in an instant.