Although Joyce Carol Oates is no stranger to dark subject matter, this particular subject is uncharted territory for her: in February 2008, Oates took her husband of forty-seven years, Raymond Smith, to the emergency room at Princeton Medical Center, where he was promptly admitted with pneumonia. After a week in the hospital, just days before his scheduled release, Smith unexpectedly died from a virulent infection. Oates was left reeling in the aftermath of her sudden widowhood; A Widow’s Story is a memoir about her struggled to cope with the depression and thoughts of suicide she experienced in the wake of her husband’s untimely death.
Oates is a prolific writer–it seems like she publishes at least a book a year–whose writing has a breathless quality to it. Her prose is beautifully descriptive, and whenever I read her books, I often find myself reading various passages over and over again because of the lyricism of her work. Though this is a memoir and not the fiction she is typically known for, the writing in A Widow’s Story is no different in this respect; Oates bares her soul to devastating degrees. Her introspections are meted out carefully, and the reader can’t help but empathize with her sense of utter loss:
“Miss Oates! Thank you so much for coming! We heard about your husband, we’re so very sorry…” […]
How hard this is…maintaining my poise as “JCO” when I am being addressed, so bluntly, as a woman whose husband has died–a “widow.”
How hard too, to change the subject–to deflect the subject–for I must not break down, not now. I know that these women mean well, of couse they mean well, one or another of these women might in fact be widowed herself, but their words leave me stricken and unable to speak at first. Accepting their condolences I must be courteous, gracious. I must understand that their solicitude is genuine, that they have no idea how desperately I would like to not to be reminded of my “loss”–at this time, particularly.
By degrees then “JCO” returns, or resumes–the precarious moment has passed.
By now I’ve seen several interviews of Oates talking about this book. She’d originally intended this to be a widow’s handbook. Indeed, there is much to be done after the death of a spouse; sorting out legal matters–the will, estate matters, etc.–proved to be a particularly unnerving experience for Oates.
I’m grateful that she chose to write a memoir instead, however, because this format allows her to explore the history and nature of her relationship with her husband. On an entirely selfish level, I’m also glad that she wrote a memoir because I was able to learn so many interesting facts and personality quirks about one of my favorite authors. For one, I had no idea that “Joyce Carol Oates” is a pen name, and that she went by her married name, Joyce Smith, in everyday life! But I also found her relationship with her husband, an editor, fascinating; according to her, he never read any of her fiction, a fact that I find shocking. This realization led her to muse that, considering how deeply personal writing is, her husband never fully knew her, and perhaps she never fully knew him even though they had been so close:
[I]s it inevitable–no wife really knows her husband? To be a wife is an intimacy so close, one can’t see; as, close up to a mirror, one can’t see one’s reflection.
Another thing I love about the book is the way that cultural tidbits from years past are sprinkled in. Oates and her husband met while she was working on her master’s degree and he was working on his PhD. Their academic endeavors took them to different places around the U.S. as they searched for work early in their careers. She talks about the racial tensions leading up to the Detroit riots (the two bought their first home in the area slightly before racial tensions exploded), as well as their struggles while living in Beaumont, Texas. She even mentions the pay disparity between her and her husband early in their teaching careers–though the two had the same jobs, albeit at different schools–the chairmen of both departments had conferred to make sure that Raymond Smith would earn a slightly higher salary than his wife.
Make no mistake about it, though: this memoir is about Oates and the aftermath of her husband’s death; though there are several tender and humorous moments, the book as a whole is rather depressing as Oates describes her fragile emotional state:
Really, I have no idea how I am. I have become a sort of wraith, or zombie–I know that I am here but have a very vague idea of what here is.
I have been observed laughing, with friends. My laughter is not forced but seems natural, spontaneous.
I have been observed staring into space, in the company of friends. Though I am aware of being observed–I try to shake myself, into wakefulness–sometimes it isn’t so easy, to haul myself back.
The experiences discussed in this book are not monolithic; everyone deals with grief differently (yet another reason why I’m glad that Oates didn’t write a widow’s handbook). Still, A Widow’s Story is a riveting exploration of various stages of grief and widowhood, and it’s a must-read for Oates fans.
A Widow’s Story was released on February 15, 2011.
These were some of my favorite passages from the book.