Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Memoir of the Month - The Widow's Story

Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher/Format: Ecco, galley proof 417 pages
Subject: Grieving
Setting: Princeton, NJ 
Genre: Memoir
Source: ARC from the publisher

A stunning tell-all from a very private person.  In this brutally honest memoir of grief, Joyce Carol Oates the author gives us the reactions and emotions of the months of anguish endured by Joyce Smith the wife of Raymond Smith, a renowned editor when he unexpectedly died of complications of pneumonia after a short stay in Princeton hospital in February 2008.

Stunned into almost complete catatonia, she is unable to function as Joyce Smith.  She cannot believe Ray has left her.  She neglects her person, her house, her mail, her expected duties, and often almost forgets the cats. She becomes particularly distraught at the continual appearance of the "Harry and David condolence baskets" which she does not want, and has no idea how to dispose of.  Nights, which are the hardest for her to endure,  bring thoughts of suicide, but her mind is too numbed even to bring her to action to complete the act.  She gathers all the medications previously dispensed to her husband and herself, counting up and listing different anti-depressants, sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, antihistamines, and other pain killers, trying to decide if she has enough to accomplish the task of putting herself out of her misery.

Daytimes bring a trance like state that can still find fault and hurt in every well-meaninged remark by friends and strangers alike.  She is unable to accept that people want to help.    By day Joyce Carol Oates continues teaching at Princeton, refusing to believe that Ray is gone.  By night, returning to an empty house, Joyce Smith cannot function, unable to open condolence notes, email, or answer the phone.  Friends gently guide her through the funeral process.  Gradually, she allows herself to consider continuing with life. By April, when Ray's garden begins to sprout with the bulbs he had planted the previous fall, she experiences the stirring of life, and to the accompaniment of her memories, begins to mend.

The writing in this work is exquisite.  The reader feels the pain, the desolation and the total emptiness Oates experienced during this traumatic period.  By speaking in the first person, she allows us to enter her isolation so we can experience the enervating emptiness she feels.  She is constantly working at simply getting through each day, each chore, each next step. She intersperses her recollections with copies of notes, emails, and letters from and to  friends and acquaintances.   Periodically she will shift to a recap in the third person, almost as if she wants to look over the widow's shoulder to produce a how-to (or how not to?) guide for widows.  At one point, (pgs 40-41) she gives us a sentence almost two pages long....very similar to a Saramago train of thought.  It was enormously effective to show us the complete disintegration of her thought processes as she tries and fails to come to terms with her husband's death.

As she works her way through the grieving process she is able to look outside herself :
"For the widow is a posthumous person passing among the living.  When the widow smiles, when the widow laughs, you see the glisten in the widow's eyes, utter madness, an actress desperate to play her role as others would wish her to play her role and only another widow, another woman who has recently lost her husband, can perceive the fraud." (pg. 332).
 I've been reading a lot of memoirs in the past two years.  This is not an uplifting book in the style of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, or Kate Braestrup's Here if You Need Me, but it is an affirming book, one that assures us that life can go on :
"Of the widow's countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband's death the widow should think I kept myself alive." (pg. 416.)


  1. Great review, I would love to read it.

  2. I find this very interesting. She has written mostly about sadness and dysfunctional people, and yet when her own life was filled with sadness, she fell apart. Strange. I think I'd like to read this book.


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