Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: A Widow's Story
Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Date Published: February 15, 2011

ISBN: 978-0062015532

Publisher: Ecco

Pages: 432

Genre: Non-fiction; Memoir

Rating: 5 out of 5

Publisher’s Book Summary: In a work unlike anything she's written before, National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates unveils a poignant, intimate memoir about the unexpected death of her husband of forty-six years and its wrenching, surprising aftermath.

"My husband died, my life collapsed."

On a February morning in 2008, Joyce Carol Oates drove her ailing husband, Raymond Smith, to the emergency room of the Princeton Medical Center where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Both Joyce and Ray expected him to be released in a day or two. But in less than a week, even as Joyce was preparing for his discharge, Ray died from a virulent hospital-acquired infection, and Joyce was suddenly faced—totally unprepared—with the stunning reality of widowhood.

A Widow's Story illuminates one woman's struggle to comprehend a life without the partnership that had sustained and defined her for nearly half a century. As never before, Joyce Carol Oates shares the derangement of denial, the anguish of loss, the disorientation of the survivor amid a nightmare of "death-duties," and the solace of friendship. She writes unflinchingly of the experience of grief—the almost unbearable suspense of the hospital vigil, the treacherous "pools" of memory that surround us, the vocabulary of illness, the absurdities of commercialized forms of mourning. Here is a frank acknowledgment of the widow's desperation—only gradually yielding to the recognition that "this is my life now." Enlivened by the piercing vision, acute perception, and mordant humor that are the hallmarks of the work of Joyce Carol Oates, this moving tale of life and death, love and grief, offers a candid, never-before-glimpsed view of the acclaimed author and fiercely private woman.

My Thoughts: I've been reading Joyce Carol Oates' novels ever since my mother allowed me to climb the stairs to the Adult Section in my hometown library. Though her fiction tends to be bleak, dark and violent her writing is compelling and authentic. Despite reading many of her books, I know very little about the life of the person behind the author. When I learned she'd written A Widow's Story, I hoped that, in addition to coping with the grief of terrible loss, her memoir would provide a peek into the real and private life of the prolific Joyce Carol Oates. I wasn't disappointed.

A Widow's Story is Joyce Carol Oates' candid, intense and poignant memoir about how she coped during the months following the death of her husband of forty-eight years, Ray. In trying to come to terms with this momentous and unexpected change in her life, Ms. Oates explores her years with Ray, dredging up memories and sharing fragments of their private life together. I enjoyed this book very much although it's very sad in parts. A Widow's Story is, ultimately, an inspiring look at one author's triumph over anguish and despair caused by the universal experience of losing a loved one. Though it is filled with raw emotion, it also has moments of levity and humor as well as advice and information for the despondent and newly widowed.

Joyce Carol Oates has an amazing ability to convey emotion through her writing. At first, I didn't recognize the author of many violent, somber-themed novels. But then I realized that many of the themes found in her books (see: Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, We Are The Mulvaneys, and Black Girl / White Girl) are echoed in the despair, anxiety and morbid outlook with which Ms. Oates views her future without Ray. Ms. Oates' writing is indicative of a woman who's morose, agitated and terribly distraught. The narrative jumps sporadically from one topic to another after Ray's death and we can feel the author's despair and anxiety in her words. One moment she observes how forgetful she's become. In the next she relates her inability to sleep and that she's started talking aloud to herself.

In the darkest parts of her memoir, Ms. Oates becomes focused on suicide which she thinks about frequently for several months after Ray's death. She writes numerous times about hoarding a variety of prescription drugs should the day come when she's too overwhelmed by grief and loss to go on. The imagery that haunts her during these months is terrifying. She writes about a basilisk, a beady-eyed ugly lizard she sees out of the corner of her eye for most of the memoir, that criticizes her, encouraging Ms. Oates to end her own life. Ms. Oates' obvious shock and devastation is apparent and understandable but also difficult to read because it's so heart-wrenching. We can feel her intense sadness when she tells us about her reluctance to return to an empty house, yet she's adamant about being left alone. And, once she's home, she doesn't want to leave and be with other people.

She relays that thoughts and feelings of guilt assault her almost daily. Ms. Oates questions herself as a wife, convinced she failed Ray. She chastises herself for much of her behavior regarding Ray and, as she remembers episodes from their life together, she often finds fault with herself. These memories provide glimpses into Ms. Oates' private life, one vastly different from what her readers might expect. She describes it as simple and quiet, in which she was Mrs. Smith. She and Ray, Mr. Smith, took frequent walks and called each other "Honey". We learn that Ms. Oates kept her "author-self" separate from her life with Ray. Surprisingly, her husband read very little of her writing and none of her fiction. She writes that Joyce Carol Oates "...doesn't exist, except as an author identification". "This is not a person". It's a shocking revelation but it explains how it's possible for her "real life" to be so different from the grim, despondent lives she writes in her fiction.

Ms. Oates is troubled about this distinct life apart from Ray, wondering if spending so much of her time writing and inside her imagination meant she spent too little genuine time with her husband. But this distinction may now be Ms. Oates saving grace. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that the name "Joyce Carol Oates" is more than an author identification. The life of Joyce Carol Oates gives the author a retreat away from the grief of her private life. She writes in a chapter titled "Oasis" that "Oates" is an island, an oasis, to which on this agitated morning I can row..."

Ms. Oates' life as a wife and author over-laps in several other ways. Throughout her memoir Ms. Oates shares references to many literary authors, poets and texts, finding comfort and support in various lines and passages from much loved books she and Ray shared over the years. She also recalls friendships with well-known authors that she and Ray enjoyed. Many of these authors and other friends send notes and letters remembering Ray fondly, offering their love and support. She finds the notes too painful to read and apologizes sincerely in her memoir for being unable to respond. Similarly, she also finds it too difficult to visit with friends of she and Ray since his death. She fears their sorrow and memories, having found that reminiscing about Ray, either alone or with other people, too painful.

Ms. Oates chooses solitude and cuts herself off from many friends. The reality of being a widow now is distasteful to Ms. Oates as she fears people will pity her. She's concerned that she appear fine on the outside and behave normally, though she's falling apart inside. Many chapters of the memoir include italicized comments about being a widow as well as advice for widows, which Ms. Oates writes as if she is not a part of the "Widow group". We get a clearer understanding of Ms. Oates' reluctance to accept being a widow when she writes that she's never been alone in her life. Ms. Oates left her parent's home to go to college where she met and married her husband. This revelation makes her sadness and despair all the more palpable.

A Widow's Story is a powerful, intimate and very personal look at the life of a woman suddenly and unexpectedly alone in the world. Ms. Oates writes with remarkable sincerity about her intense despair and anguish over Ray's death. Her writing is so authentic and heartfelt it renders some parts of her memoir difficult to read, such as when she believes she must be descending into madness. The writing isn't fluid because, unlike a novel, this is a memoir, a personal account of grief about which there is no stability or uniformity. Towards the end the writing evens out to a degree. It is still erratic at times but because she's slowly coming to terms with her husband's death, discovering strength within herself, her writing is stronger, more polished and less inconsistent.

Ms Oates shares with us her journey from sudden widowhood to hopeful survivor. Losing someone you love is, unfortunately, something many people will experience in their lives and hopefully Ms. Oates' memoir will help people deal with their grief and anxiety when they need it most.

For other reviews of A Widow's Story see: Rundpinne; The Book's the Thing; Shelf Love; Knitting and Sundries

I received an ARC of A Widow’s Story from the Publisher, Ecco.


  1. Wow, this really sounds like a powerful and worthwhile read. Great review Amy!

  2. I thought this book would be fabulous. I don't think it's the right time for me to read it though.

  3. I was just reading another blog that was raving about this one, too. It's going to make me sad, I know and now is probably not the right time for me. But I'm definitely adding it to the wish list.

  4. Mi SIL lost my brother 18 months ago, and has had an awful time dealing with the loss. They were married 46 years.

    Do you think this would add to her pain, or help her deal? It seems like it might work both was depending on the reader's situation??

  5. This is an outstanding review, Amy! I like JCO for the most part and read an excerpt from A Widow's Story in The New Yorker a few months ago. It was absolutely riveting. I could not put it down! Not sure how soon I can get to the book though...

  6. I think I need to read this. I've been seeking out books on grief ever since my parents died and this sounds like it is raw and heartfelt and real. Excellent review!