A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)
A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for. Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read. Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end. For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.
Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia. There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together. They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death. An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives. More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.
Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants. She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more. The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”
What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith. It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband. Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction. Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.
If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth. It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction. The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father. It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.
There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc. The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.
After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing. However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.
One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output. Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.
Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one. It is simply too good to miss.
This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating. A review copy was provided by the publisher.