A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

By Ekta R. Garg

March 16, 2011

Rated: Borrow it

In February 2008 renowned writer Joyce Carol Oates experienced a life event no one anticipates: the death of her husband Raymond Smith, publisher/editor of the literary magazine Ontario Review.  As traumatic as this event was for her, the dramatic arc of the situation intensified because of the circumstances of his death.  Having been admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, Ray contracted E. coli in his right lung while in the hospital.  The infection, in effect, killed him.

Oates, understandably, was devastated.  Ray had been her first love, and they had been married for 47 years.  Since the day they first met, by Oates’ account, they had never been apart for more than a day or two.  And all of a sudden, they were separated forever.

Just days shy of his third death anniversary this February, Oates’ book A Widow’s Story: A Memoir released.  The book reads in parts like journal entries, which makes sense because Oates recounted to a reporter the day of the book’s release that parts of the book were taken from her own journaling of those initial days and weeks.

Indeed, the majority of the book focuses on those first few minutes, days, and weeks of Oates’ experiences as a widow.  By turns she offers advice to other widows as well as her own realizations of what it means to be in her newfound role.  The emotions and thoughts she shares are more than intimate: they drive straight to the heart of what it actually means and feels like to be a widow.  Because of this series of bare-hearted admissions, the book can be excruciating to read.  No one likes to think of his or her spouse dying, and through the personal journal entries Oates walks us through the ordeal one heartbeat at a time.

She is frank about the issues that she has to handle in this new role: executing her husband’s will (at which point she advises new widows to have several copies of their husbands’ death certificates on hand,) the insomnia and depression she suffers (and the medications prescribed to her to help with both conditions,) and her frank thoughts on suicide (thinking about it often and yet not being able to commit herself to that most drastic act.)

Oates doesn’t hold back.  She talks about the temporary suspension of her ability to write, yet in the week after Ray’s death she fulfills speaking engagements to which she’d committed months earlier.  In these appearances she appreciates the opportunity to leave the home she shared with the man she loved, and yet she cringes at the sympathy she receives.  Several times Oates states that when she’s at home she longs to be away, and when she’s away from her home she longs to return.

These thoughts and others weigh down her narrative with the gravity of the life situation she’s dealt.  Having never read any of Oates’ fiction, her ability to convey with some coherence and intelligence the absolutely awful situation impressed me.  But her words and ideas and thoughts can also drag down one’s heart, and for that reason this book is not to be read with any internal flippancy.

Interspersed in these thoughts clouding Oates’ mind are recollections of her life with Ray, including some moments from their early married life as well as time spent with friends.  Oates also muses about Ray’s estrangement from his father and how this relationship revealed itself in Black Mass, the unfinished novel Ray had tinkered with through the years.  As Oates tells us it is only after Ray’s death that she has the courage to read through the entire manuscript, something she’d never done before.  In doing so she learns facts about her husband she hadn’t known before, making his death even more poignant for her.

As Ray’s wife she had been “Joyce Smith”; to the world, she is “Joyce Carol Oates,” hailed as one of the most renowned writers of the current age.  Oates had even been considered by many as a heavy favorite for the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature (although she didn’t win.)  Her memoir is certainly captivating, but do not be betrayed by the word “memoir.”  This book is more than a collection of memories a wife has of her late husband.  It is an incredibly honest, sometimes painful examination of widowhood.  Not, as I said before, for the fainthearted.


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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