Inevitably, readers will compare Joyce Carol Oates' memoir about the loss of her husband to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, but no comparisons are necessary between such original, piercing retrievals. Raymond Smith and Oates were, in every sense, true life companions: Married for nearly half a century, the couple shared a deep passion of literature long before they co-founded The Ontario Review thirty-six years ago. His February 2008 demise left her helpless. She told an interviewer, "Since my husband's unexpected death, I really have very little energy... My marriagemy love for my husbandseems to have come first in my life, rather than my writing." With this writing, Oates brings back her husbandand herself. Editor's recommendation.
Early one morning in February 2008, Oates drove her husband, Raymond Smith, to the Princeton Medical Center where he was admitted with pneumonia. There, he developed a virulent opportunistic infection and died just one week later. Suddenly and unexpectedly alone, Oates staggered through her days and nights trying desperately just to survive Smith's death and the terrifying loneliness that his death brought. In her typically probing fashion, Oates navigates her way through the choppy waters of widowhood, at first refusing to accept her new identity as a widow. She wonders if there is a perspective from which the widow's grief is sheer vanity, this pretense that one's loss is so very special that there has never been a loss quite like it. In the end, Oates finds meaning, much like many of Tolstoy's characters, in the small acts that make up and sustain ordinary life. When she finds an earring she thought she'd lost in a garbage can that raccoons have overturned, she reflects, "If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash." At times overly self-conscious, Oates nevertheless shines a bright light in every corner in her soul-searing memoir of widowhood. (Feb.)
Like Joan Didion, another well-known author who wrote about her husband's death (The Year of Magical Thinking), Oates, referring to herself here as Joyce Smith, shares with us the sudden and unexpected demise of her husband, Raymond Smith, editor of the Ontario Review, which he founded with Oates in 1974. The two were married for 48 years. Oates recounts her husband's fatal bout of pneumonia and the arduous aftermath: dealing with death duties, the terror of aloneness, the sleeplessness, the thoughts of suicide. She gets help from friends and from medication, but it takes her months before she can face and accept being on her own. VERDICT This book is beautifully written and very affecting. Oates is honest and forthcoming about her fears, dazed state, and outer mien vs. inner terror. Readers will become emotionally involved then feel relief when Oates is finally able to move on. A worthy purchase that will be appreciated by readers of memoir generally and older readers especially.—Gina Kaiser, Univ. of the Sciences Lib., Philadelphia
A wildly unhinged, deeply intimate look at the eminent author's "derangement of Widowhood."
Oates's husband, Ontario Review co-founder Raymond J. Smith, a 78-year-old man in good health, was not supposed to die. In early 2008, he was admitted to the emergency room near their home in Princeton, N.J., and diagnosed with pneumonia. Then he developed complications from an bacterial infection and died of cardiac arrest on Feb. 18, 2008. The shock of losing her husband of 48 years nearly unraveled this author of countless novels, stories and essays, as well as a longtime professor of English at Princeton. In this surreal, nearly hallucinatory journey—she was referred to the Yellow Pages for a funeral home, soon became hooked on tranquilizers to overcome insomnia and often imagined a fiendish creature she calls a basilisk jeering at her—the author chronicles the painful first months of grief and emotional paralysis. Oates (Sourland, 2010, etc.) is a master at creating the interior-driven narrative, and fashions from her experience the character of the Widow—Mrs. Smith—distraught, vulnerable, helpless without the guidance of wise friends, susceptible to crippling regrets, prone to childish self-pity and even erupting in anger at a doctor who suggested that Ray just "gave up." She also invents the character of "JCO," the professor whom she had to "impersonate" at the university, the public self, the co-editor of theOntario Reviewwho had to inform their readers and writers that the literary review had to cease publication. Oates writes with gut-wrenching honesty and spares no one in ripping the illusions off the face of death—the relentless senders of "sympathy gift baskets" clotting her home like "party food," her husband who "threw away both our lives with [his] carelessness contracting a cold" and the friends and acquaintances who mouthed wooden responses.
Oates continues to keep her readers guessing at her next thrilling effort.
Is it perverse to suggest that Joyce Carol Oates's memoir of widowhood is as enthralling as it is painful? Oates has always focused her writing so intensely that virtually all her prose is compelling, but this brave account of her recent grief seems composed with something close to abandon. It is as if Oates has decided, after the sudden death of her husband of 48 years, that her own inclination toward privacy is no longer important.
The Washington Post
What Oates discovers in A Widow's Story, a cascade-of-consciousness that will mostly mesmerize you and surely move you, is that grief can…unleash an identity crisis…the prodigious author of some 50 novels and perhaps 1,000 storiesas well as poems, essays, playshas assembled a book more painfully self-revelatory than anything Oates the fiction writer or critic has ever dared to produce.
The New York Times
"As much a portrait of a unique marriage as a chronicle of grief...immensely moving…"
“As much a portrait of a unique marriage as a chronicle of grief...immensely moving…“
“Joyce Carol Oates’s new memoir, A Widow’s Story, is a naked confession about the messy relation of art to life…A Widow’s Story, while about life after the death of a husband, is also about the intense inner life of a female genius…”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Reads like a rending of garments…”
“Affecting…perfectly pitched prose…”
National Public Radio
“A brave, dark but slyly mordant memoir…Oates rages at the dying of the light of her life in this unflinching, generous portrait of the terror of emptiness.”
“The novelist and essayist pens her most intimate book about the death of her husband of 46 years. Judging by the excerpt in The New Yorker Oates’ memoir will join Antonia Fraser and Joan Didion on the shelf of essential works on loss.”
Kansas City Star
“Oates writes movingly about the terror, depression and suicidal ruminations that dominated her existence in the months after Smith’s death…it’s impossible to be unmoved by Oates’ “Story,” by the degree to which she sees her husband everywhere she looks, as she finds beauty in the elusive notion of renewal.”
New York Times Book Review
“…A cascade-of-consciousness that will mostly mesmerize you and surely move you…a book more painfully self-revelatory than anything Oates the fiction writer or critic has ever dared to produce.”
“An affecting portrait of anguish.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“…Astonishingly candid…[Oates’s] suffering gushes forth in page after page of detailed prose, snatches of sentences, reportorial and intuitive, emotional and reflective…Oates set out to write a widow’s handbook. What she has accomplished is a story of a marriage.”
New York Review of Books
“Oates excellently conveys the disconnect between the inwardly chaotic self and the outwardly functioning person…”
Wall Street Journal
“Flourishes of black humor punctuate the drumbeat of grief, setting the book apart from works such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.”
“…As enthralling as it is painful…a searing account…It is characteristic of Oates’s superb balancing of the intellectual and the emotional that she enables a reader to experience Smith’s death in the dramatic way she herself did.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Oates’ raw emotion lifts the veil of the enormity of grief that most widows, and widowers, must feel at the loss of their partners in a way that will come as a shock to some and a relief to others.”
Dallas Morning News
“A vivid and urgent memoir…”
“A Widow’s Story is unlike anything Oates has written before…a poignant and raw examination of the obsessiveness and self-indulgence of grief…”
“This is a brave, haunting, heart-rending book, and it will never let you go.”
“Joyce Carol Oates writes like a force of nature, and a story emerges, as if organically, from the physicality of her grief. There are few secrets and no lies, only insights into the inner world of her partner of 50 years.”
“In a narrative as searing as the best of her fiction, Oates describes the aftermath of her husband Ray’s unexpected death from pneumonia…It’s the painful, scorchingly angry journey of a woman struggling to live in a house “from which meaning has departed, like air leaking from a balloon.”
“Astonishing…revelatory…[A Widow’s Story] is remarkable…for how candidly Oates explores the writer’s secret life: the private world of her marriage, which…she asserts is far truer and more real, and of far greater importance, than any of her imaginary creations.”
“A harrowing tale…”
Charleston Post & Courier
“Widowhood for Oates is a rough, disfiguring condition, one that mocks past happiness. Words are her salvation. “A Widow’s Story” is a brave book that carries its author through the contortions of doubt and despair, on a pilgrimage back to life.”
“As a writer, heightened emotion is the essential ingredient in [Oates’] work…As A Widow’s Story progresses, it becomes [Raymond Smith’s] storyboth an homage to a decent, intensely private man, and Oates’ way of keeping him in memory as she probes his most closely guarded self.”
“Packed with moments of…frankness…”
Read an Excerpt
A Widow's Story
By Joyce Carol Oates
Copyright © 2011 Joyce Carol Oates
All right reserved.
February 15, 2008. Returning to our car that has been haphazardly
parkedby meon a narrow side street near the Princeton Medical
CenterI see, thrust beneath a windshield wiper, what appears to be
a sheet of stiff paper. At once my heart clenches in dismay, guilty ap-
prehensiona ticket? A parking ticket? At such a time? Earlier that
afternoon I'd parked here on my wayhurried, harrieda jangle of
admonitions running through my head like shrieking cicadasif you'd
happened to see me you might have thought pityingly That woman is in
a desperate hurryas if that will do any goodto visit my husband in the
Telemetry Unit of the medical center where he'd been admitted several
days previously for pneumonia; now I need to return home for a few
hours preparatory to returning to the medical center in the early eve-
ninganxious, dry-mouthed and head-aching yet in an aroused state
that might be called hopefulfor since his admission into the medical
center Ray has been steadily improving, he has looked and felt better,
and his oxygen intake, measured by numerals that fluctuate with liter-
ally each breath90, 87, 91, 85, 89, 92is steadily gaining, arrangements
are being made for his discharge into a rehab clinic close by the medical
center(hopeful is our solace in the face of mortality); and now, in the
late afternoon of another of these interminable and exhausting hospital-
dayscan it be that our car has been ticketed?in my distraction I'd
parked illegally?the time limit for parking on this street is only two
hours, I've been in the medical center for longer than two hours, and
see with embarrassment that our 2007 Honda Accordeerily glaring-
white in February dusk like some strange phosphorescent creature in the
depths of the seais inexpertly, still more inelegantly parked, at a slant
to the curb, left rear tire over the white line in the street by several inches,
front bumper nearly touching the SUV in the space ahead. But nowif
this is a parking ticketat once the thought comes to me I won't tell Ray,
I will pay the fine in secret.
Except the sheet of paper isn't a ticket from the Princeton Police De-
partment after all but a piece of ordinary paperopened and smoothed
out by my shaky hand it's revealed as a private message in aggressively
large block-printed letters which with stunned staring eyes I read several
times like one faltering on the brink of an abysslearn to park stuppid bitch.
In this way as in that parable of Franz Kafka in which the most profound
and devastating truth of the individual's life is revealed to him by a passer-by
in the street, as if accidentally, casually, so the Widow-to-Be, like the Widow,
is made to realize that her situation however unhappy, despairing or fraught
with anxiety, doesn't give her the right to overstep the boundaries of others,
especially strangers who know nothing of her"Left rear tire over the white
line in the street."
Excerpted from A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates Copyright © 2011 by Joyce Carol Oates. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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