A Widow’s Story

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A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, book reviewTo her fans and readers she’s Joyce Carol Oates, a highly respected writer with a bucket-load of writing awards and over 50 novels to her name. To others she’s Rosamund Smith or Lauren Kelly, two of her pen names. To students at Princeton University where she’s taught since 1978, she’s Professor Oates. To family and friends, she was Joyce Smith, loving wife of Raymond J Smith. In February 2008 when Ray died suddenly and unexpectedly of a hospital acquired infection, she took on her latest role and identity – that of ‘the Widow’. Her latest book is the entirely autobiographical and deeply personal ‘A Widow’s Story’ and it is Oates’ account of the aftermath of Ray’s death and its impact on her.

When we marry and utter those words ‘til death us do part’ it can almost sound like a contractual ‘get out’ clause; like death is the end of the relationship and releases us from all promises and obligations. What Oates shows us is that it’s not the end, it’s not a release, it’s just the beginning of a horrifying new existence with a great big hole in the centre of the life of the surviving spouse.

Ray had a bit of a cold which seemed to be getting worse. Joyce bullied him into the car and took him to the Emergency Room of the local hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Despite being in his late 70s Ray should have been fine, but a couple of hospital acquired infections took hold of his system and unexpectedly he died. We watch as Joyce fights the truth, descends into despair, considers and rejects suicide but still hoards painkillers, sleeping pills and other medication against the thought that one day she might need their release. She immerses herself in her work to try to distract herself from the overwhelming loss. She misses Ray more than she could ever have imagined, struggles to deal with the sympathy of others and tries to keep her life on track by continuing to teach, tour and give book readings.

At times I found myself thinking that I’d read so much that she must be many months on from the event. Then I’d spot a date and realise that it was barely a month after his death and I was over 200 pages into the book. Joyce Carol Oates is desperately lonely but wants nobody around her except the man she can no longer have. There are moments that made me laugh or left me baffled by the insensitivity of American society. Did you know for example that death is so commercialised that people are encouraged to send ‘sympathy baskets’, stuffed with rich luxury foods that are likely to be the last thing the mourning relative needs or wants? As Joyce Carol Oates is faced with incessant doorbell ringing and drags herself to the door to face embarrassed looking delivery men, she ponders how ridiculous it is to send such gifts.

We get to read lots of her emails and letters from the weeks after Ray’s death – dipping into the notes that use a brevity that’s missing in Oates’ normal writing. It seems there’s no need to write page after page – society forgives and expects nothing more detailed.

“I’ve enjoyed reading this but the answer to “who is this book for?” is probably Oates herself.”

Death seems to be the modern world’s greatest taboo – whilst millions play computer games, killing at will and regenerating with the next earned ‘life’, and whilst we watch films of increasing levels of violence, as a society we treat death as a topic to be politely avoided and brushed aside. We fear the pain and anguish of those left behind, stuttering over our clumsy protestations of condolence. Due to the tendency for women to marry slightly older men and for men to die on average at a younger age than women, we can intellectualise that statistically women are more likely than men will be left behind, challenged to rebuild their lives after loss. It’s not an uncommon event but if you look to the nation’s bookshelves, it’s the least represented in print of all life’s rites of passage.

That’s why ‘A Widow’s Story’ is such an important book.

I cannot think of any books that deal so directly with the pain of losing a partner. There are many about losing children but then losing a child is a thankfully rare event, something that isn’t supposed to happen. Losing a partner is a shockingly high probability event and yet the bookshelves are empty. Some authors write about the life of a lost loved one but this is not a book about Ray, it’s a book about Joyce, the Widow. Very few writers can open themselves up in a clear, honest fashion and confess the despair they have been through without over dramatisation or soppiness. Many first person accounts revel in self-pity and overly dramatic emotion but Joyce Carol Oates delivers this as if she’s observing herself from outside her body.

I’ve been buying Joyce Carol Oates’s books for nearly 20 years though I have to admit I’m generally better at buying them than reading them. I’m often attracted to her books but tend to find them off-putting by virtue of their size and her tendency to waffle even worse than I do. She writes beautifully but rarely succinctly. I started with her relatively skinny book ‘Black Water’, an eerie novel based none too loosely on the death of Mary Jo Kopechnie who drowned in a river at Chappaquiddick in a car driven by Senator Ted Kennedy. I’ve got several more, including her best seller ‘Blonde’ about Marilyn Monroe, but I just haven’t got round to them. When I received a copy of ‘A Widow’s Story’ from the publishers, I knew that this time I had to make the effort and I’m pleased to say that it’s been well worth it. Reading this book is like dipping into the most intimate and unscreened, un-dressed-up, raw emotions of someone going through a living hell.

Would I have read this book if it hadn’t been sent to me? I’m not sure. It’s such a tough topic to read about and you can’t take it on without accepting that it will change the way you look at life and death. I can’t help but think it’s a book that many people NEED, to show them that bereavement cuts deeper than any of us can imagine and that it’s OK to admit to feeling that your life may be completely without a centre or a purpose. It’s basically an incredibly brave and raw book that pulls no punches. It may help you to understand how friends and family have reacted to loss but realistically nobody should draw too many conclusions about widowhood since every person’s experience will be different.

The question I find niggling in the back of my mind is who is this book really for? I wouldn’t have read it if I didn’t need to review it. I’ve enjoyed it but who would go looking for such a traumatic read? It’s not like reading a book about a disease or a medical issue because nobody sits down and thinks “Today I’m going to try to learn what it would be like to survive the death of my husband”. I wondered if this might be something that new (or not so new) widows would find comforting but I have to conclude that it’s not something that’s likely to comfort. Published just 2 years after Ray’s death, it’s not even a book where you can say that author has adapted to her loss and is offering inspiration. I’ve enjoyed reading this but the answer to “who is this book for?” is probably Oates herself. It’s an act of catharsis which we as readers are invited to observe and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by HarperCollins, March 2011
With thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy.

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A Widow’s Story
by Joyce Carol Oates

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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