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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: 'A Widow's Story'

By Joyce Carol Oates
February 2011
ISBN: 978-0062015532

For 48 years and 25 days, Joyce Carol Oates thought of herself not as the author Joyce Carol Oates, but as Joyce Smith, wife of Raymond Smith, professor and editor of The Ontario Review. That thinking, that life, is abruptly shattered in the middle of a February night in 2008 when she receives a call from the hospital where she had taken her pneumonia-stricken husband a few days earlier, summoning her to get there quicky because her husband was still alive.

When she got there, he wasn't.

The guilt, the grief, the bewilderment, the anger and the depression of those first few hours, days and weeks are chronicled in A Widow's Story. The anguish is unrelenting and the chronicling deal with both the minutiae and large-scale ramifications to daily living and to one's sense of self and value of living.

Reaction to the memoir has centered on comparing this work to Joan Didion's brilliant memoir when she lost both her husband and daughter, and to Oates's remarrying soon after her first husband's death.

It's been uniformly negative, with a level of disdain puzzling to someone who has only read a few short stories and one novel of the author's. They had macabre elements but also poignant moments. It's possible to see the curiosity of the author behind the stories, wondering how people would feel if placed in such a situation or how different characteristics would produce different reactions. Those explorations are legitimate reasons to write fiction and should certainly be welcome within the scope of a major reason for fiction to exist: To explore the human condition in its myriad complicated, glorious forms. Oates displays the same kind of intellectual curiosity to her own reactions when her husband dies.

Oates may well be bringing up Didion when she writes late in her book about another well-known writer, a friend, whose husband died and who wrote a best-selling memoir about the experience. The friend writes a letter to Oates about being stunned and how getting over that was a huge obstacle. Oates uses that as a springboard to wonder how much of grief is vanity. She returns to a trope she uses time and again throughout the book: That the widow should be punished, should be ridiculed, should be made miserable by the judgment of others.

While many other writers would stick with the original idea about being stunned, and a few others might take that as the foundation for a treatise on guilt, Oates instead goes into the territory of her insomnia, the medication she is fitfully taking for it and how taking it takes away discernment. Perhaps this is the basis for much criticism of Oates's writing. She certainly piles it on in this book, one idea going to another to another to another in non-linear fashion. Some readers may want to let each idea have its own space and time.

But just as Oates's story is not Didion's, neither are they going to view their experiences in the same way or write about them in the same way. So to criticize Oates for not writing like Didion is to criticize her for not being another person.

Even more major has been the criticism that Oates does not reveal in her memoir that she remarried 11 months after her husband's death. In the final pages, this man is mentioned obliquely as an unexpected guest to a dinner party in her home, that her life will be altered after that evening and that anything which is a gift is given not because it is deserved but because it is a gift.

Oates gives the reason why she would remarry earlier on, though, quoting a letter she wrote to a friend two months after her husband's death. She writes about how hard it is to live alone, that she cannot concentrate and that she worries about being able to keep on living this way. She also writes that she would likely still not be alive if not for her friends. So it's no wonder she sought solace by marrying again. Some people thrive on solitude, some do not. Some honor their late spouses by craving the continuance of the kind of life they led with their spouse.

For other people to condemn Oates because she didn't react the same way that Didion did, or that they think she should react, is a petty reaction. To be condemned for not being someone else or for not seeing things with the same perspective as the person doing the judging is to deny the humanity of the person condemned. Oates, with her insistence on the widow being punished, appears to know in advance she would be judged harshly. And she includes events that do not put her in a good light, such as one concerning one of their cats who preferred Ray over her, but which a good novelist would include in a book about a flawed character.

Yes, Oates's memoir is bloated and repetitive. But it also is a chronicle of a very low point in someone's life and how she has chosen to recount it. She does honor her late husband by conveying what a kind and gentle man he was, by writing about his garden, his work and his unfinished, unpublished novel that she reads after his death. In writing about that novel, Oates also shows how she begins to come to terms with her husband's death by answering for herself questions she has about him after he dies. Writers interested in the process of creating fiction should be drawn to the story of Raymond Smith's lifelong work in progress and how a prolific novelist looks at that work.
A Widow's Story may be far from a "perfect" representation, no matter how a reader defines perfection, but it is a worthwhile testament to what the experience of sudden widowhood meant in the early going to one woman.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. The New Yorker published an excerpt of this memoir a few months ago. After reading the first sentence, I could not look away - was simply riveted to her story. I'm surprised the reviews have been so negative. That said, I doubt I'll read the book.

  2. I was surprised to find the book so fascinating, especially because Oates treats herself like one of her characters -- she takes a big step back to observe.

    But this vitriol is especially curious. I'm still wondering how much it says about Oates and how much it says about her critics.

    I always appreciate your insights, JoAnn. Thanks for commenting.