A Widow's Story: A Memoir

A Widow's Story: A Memoir

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by Joyce Carol Oates
     
 

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Unlike anything Joyce Carol Oates has written before, A Widow’s Story is the universally acclaimed author’s poignant, intimate memoir about the unexpected death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-six years, and its wrenching, surprising aftermath. A recent recipient of National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award,

Overview

Unlike anything Joyce Carol Oates has written before, A Widow’s Story is the universally acclaimed author’s poignant, intimate memoir about the unexpected death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-six years, and its wrenching, surprising aftermath. A recent recipient of National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, Oates, whose novels (Blonde, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Little Bird of Heaven, etc.) rank among the very finest in contemporary American fiction, offers an achingly personal story of love and loss. A Widow’s Story is a literary memoir on a par with The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice.

Editorial Reviews

Valerie Sayers
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
Ann Hulbert
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 stories—as well as poems, essays, plays—has assembled a book more painfully self-revelatory than anything Oates the fiction writer or critic has ever dared to produce.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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.)
People Magazine
"As much a portrait of a unique marriage as a chronicle of grief...immensely moving…"
People
“As much a portrait of a unique marriage as a chronicle of grief...immensely moving…“
Elle
“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…”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“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.”
Daily Beast
“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.”
The Economist
“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.”
Washington Post
“…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…”
Denver Post
“A Widow’s Story is unlike anything Oates has written before…a poignant and raw examination of the obsessiveness and self-indulgence of grief…”
Providence Journal
“This is a brave, haunting, heart-rending book, and it will never let you go.”
Financial Times
“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.”
Entertainment Weekly
“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.”
Book Forum
“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.”
Detroit News
“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.”
Seattle Times
“As a writer, heightened emotion is the essential ingredient in [Oates’] work…As A Widow’s Story progresses, it becomes [Raymond Smith’s] story—both an homage to a decent, intensely private man, and Oates’ way of keeping him in memory as she probes his most closely guarded self.”
Seattle Weekly
“Packed with moments of…frankness…”
Library Journal
In 2008, after her husband is diagnosed with pneumonia and dies unexpectedly of a hospital-acquired infection, National Book Award winner Oates (Them) struggles to move forward and redefine her life without him. Oates's grief is palpable as she describes battling depression, insomnia, and impolite questions, but her strongest passages comprise her recollections of the time she spent with her late husband. Whatever sort of dark humor Oates attempts to achieve with her advice on how to be a "good widow," however, is not entirely successfully captured in actress/narrator Ellen Parker's treatment of the text. Still, fans of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and/or Marilynne Robinson's Gilead are sure to savor. ["A worthy purchase that will be appreciated by readers of memoir generally and older readers especially," read the review of the Ecco hc, LJ 10/15/10.—Ed.]—Johannah Genett, Hennepin Cty. Lib., MN
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062082633
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
02/15/2011
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
122,507
File size:
721 KB

Read an Excerpt

A Widow's Story

A Memoir
By Joyce Carol Oates

HarperCollins

Copyright © 2011 Joyce Carol Oates
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-201553-2


Chapter One

The Message

February 15, 2008. Returning to our car that has been haphazardly
parked—by me—on a narrow side street near the Princeton Medical
Center—I see, thrust beneath a windshield wiper, what appears to be
a sheet of stiff paper. At once my heart clenches in dismay, guilty ap-
prehension—a ticket? A parking ticket? At such a time? Earlier that
afternoon I'd parked here on my way—hurried, harried—a jangle of
admonitions running through my head like shrieking cicadas—if you'd
happened to see me you might have thought pityingly That woman is in
a desperate hurry—as if that will do any good—to 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-
ning—anxious, dry-mouthed and head-aching yet in an aroused state
that might be called hopeful—for 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 breath—90, 87, 91, 85, 89, 92—is 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-
days—can 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 Accord—eerily glaring-
white in February dusk like some strange phosphorescent creature in the
depths of the sea—is 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 now—if
this is a parking ticket—at 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 paper—opened 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 abyss—learn 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."

(Continues...)



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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. In 2003 she received the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature, and in 2006 she received the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
Education:
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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A Widow's Story: A Memoir 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 73 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In February 2008, Ontario review Editor Raymond Smith was not feeling well so his wife of almost five decades noted author Joyce Carol Oates drove him to the Princeton Medical Center. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted as a patient. Both he and his spouse expected him to come home in a few days. Instead he developed an infection and died one week later. This memoir is about Ms. Oates' efforts to move on from the unexpected death of a loved one. Everything reminded her how alone she had become and how much she missed her beloved partner. Ms. Oates confesses she initially expected Raymond to appear any moment to help her with the physical and monetary impacts of his death. However, as she wept agonizingly slowly through the passes of grieving, she realized it is the little things in life that enabled Joyce Smith to survive the biggest tragedy she ever faced. This is an insightful first-hand look at grieving as Ms. Oates confirms grief is personally customized to the loving survivor. Harriet Klausner
A_reader_in_Juneau_AKEP More than 1 year ago
Perhaps it is those who have recently lost a loved one who would be attracted to this memoir. This appears to be the case from the other reviews that appear on this page. This may be because of an earnestness, a desperation, that pervades the thoughts of the bereaved. I have recently experienced a death in my family. I disclose this only for context and I will say no more about it, except to say that when I read about Ms. Oates' memoir in the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker I was immediately drawn to it. Her book does a good job of describing the personal and spiritual disintegration that occurs following a death. Two things undermine the power of this book. The first is the author's unabashed self involvement. She often refers to herself in the third person as "the widow." I cannot think of any third person self reference as not being pretentious unless it is self deprecating. If you lose someone you love dearly, your are disarmed and wounded by this death, and all roads lead to the one you have lost. Ms. Oates makes it clear that she was plenty wounded by the death of her husband, yet all roads lead to her. She soon ceases to be the victim of her bereavement and instead uses it to interpret how she perceives her life and the actions of those around her. Where for some, bereavement allows them to explore avenues of compassion toward others, especially those clumsy in conveying their sympathy, not so for Ms. Oates. She points out that practically everything and everybody is insensitive to what she is going through and woe unto those who would tread upon her anger and loss. The second is that the author is Joyce Carol Oates, a literary powerhouse who does not experience ordinary life the way the rest of us do. If she writes about a letter or a conversation with a friend or colleague, it is Edmund Wilson, John Updike, or Phillip Roth. In this way the book becomes an inroad to the literary life populated by those with the calling and considerable talent to be writers. I admit this enthralled me, but it removed her experience from my own. Yet this memoir bears its gifts for the bereaved. When the author is going through a bag of cards and letters she received after her husband's death, finally able to do so, she uncovers a gem: "You will be grief stricken for the rest of your life, but don't lose your vitality." And this, quoted in the New York Review of Books' article: "We who are living - we who have survived - understand that our guilt is what links us to the dead. At times we can hear them calling to us, a growing incredulity in their voices You will not forget me - with you? How can you forget me? I have no one but you."
Michmsnrn More than 1 year ago
This memoir was helpful to me in many ways after I have been through the loss of too many loved ones in the past 5 years. She shows wonderful depth, and insight into the world of those who have lost and are coping and attempting to integrate those losses into their lives as they move forward. That being said-this book also seems to be an outlet for several petty slights, differences with those who do not matter to the author and to those who are unable or unfortunate enough to have gotten on Mrs. Smiths (Oates) bad side (administration at the university) or unlucky enough to have sent her a condolence card. Her manners for those who attempt in their own foundling way to convey their condolence-is not forgivable. There are times where she seem to take particular joy in cutting them down via her reader. This is unprofessional and unfair. I know first hand family members who have behaved with more bravery and decency than this author when faced with 3x the tragedy. I am not going to be looking for more of her novels anytime soon.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The first few hundred pages were engaging...the rest took me weeks to slog through only necause i dojnt giveup on a book easily..i love this woman and what she has experienced but it became a ramble
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Joyce Carol Oates' angst is so keenly expressed that the reader becomes part of her story. It is impossible not to feel her pain, her fright at being left alone, and her second guessing about what she could have done to prevent this death. I suggested that a friend of mine who was newly widowed read this book. She was expressing the same kind of feelings about the fears of being alone, the thought that maybe there was something she missed that could have prolonged her husband's life. My friend felt somewhat relieved to have her feelings expressed by a writer we have been reading for several years. This is a book that engages women of any age.
Rebecca Bell More than 1 year ago
Joyce carol oates has written a very descriptive portral of what it feels to be a widow i lost my husband suddenly to pneumonia also. If you want to get a clear understanding of what a widow goes through when she loses her husband and the life she knew, read this book. It helped me to realize that i am not going crazy.
Lojie More than 1 year ago
I have always loved her books. She expressed what I think I would be feeling had my husband died unexpectedly. Painful but worth the time.
KHFWomanInHiding More than 1 year ago
Any time a woman writer dares to reveal the truth behind the mask, especially when it is "unseemly," she is reaching out her hand in compassion to every woman. In "A Widow's Story" Joyce Carol Oates unmasks herself, sometimes brutally, and through her courage we, the readers, are given an opportunity to see and honor the fralities of our own humanity and that of others in the face tragedy. I am truly sorry that Ms. Oates had to experience such a devastating loss, and yet so grateful that she transformed her anguish into a gift to others.
Steve Laman More than 1 year ago
very heartfelt and enlightening. one i will come back to again and again.
Kaxa More than 1 year ago
I was looking for support when I bought this book having had several deaths in the family in a short time span.  The first chapters are fine  but the material becomes very self-centered and repetitive.  I did finish the book albeit grudgingly! 
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sallyreader More than 1 year ago
I found this book quite moving. I wanted to reach out and help in some way to alleviate the bereft woman and realized I was simply a witness to the author's grief and loneliness. I was glad to see the glimmers of light and recovery as the book progressed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just could not finish this book. I lost interest  reading all the e-mails (too personal) and the poetry readings. Redundant in her use of the word "widow" pushed me over the edge. Sorry
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