A Widow's Story: A Memoir

Image of A Widow's Story: A Memoir
Release Date: 
February 14, 2011
Reviewed by: 

A reader often selects a book because of an affinity for the author, word of mouth, or an interest in the subject—only to meander through the pages to discover that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped. Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book. Then, without warning, comes that “next” book—the one they whip through so fast they are sad that it had to end. For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Ms. Oates’s husband, Ray Smith, died unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia. There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.

The couple met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death. An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue as his untimely passing left many loose ends in their life. More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her frequent references to literature as well as to their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must consciously choose to live.

Ms. Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/anti-depressants. She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseum, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more. The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith. It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings toward her husband. Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction. Upon his death, she deliberates excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel, Black Mass, in which he muses over his own Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer and dives in.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two people: Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth. It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates, though no Atwood (a Canadian), by any means, comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction. The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written nonfiction tales of death (Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father). It is a lesson to all readers not to comingle the work with the writer, because reading Oates’ fiction might give one an impression of what this author might be like personally, but that would not be anywhere near consistent with how she writes about herself in this book.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters through the novel, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc. The book slows down a bit—but it then recovers.

As expected, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing. However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her former husband, which she does impeccably.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that she is so prolific that one can hardly keep track of her output. Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her. Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one. It is simply too good to miss.