A Widow's Story: A Memoir

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

Widow is a collection of 18 short stories, which, if you go by the title and you want to be pedantic, deal with “women who have lost their husbands by death and have not married again.” This literary definition would seem to suggest that the women in these stories have lost some part of themselves, are no longer whole, no longer complete.

This, however, is not the case and, even as soon as you begin to read the title story, you realize that the women are probably more complete than they have been and the stories are not really about loss at all, but are about the ending of an event. And, although the event had the same title for all of them, the experience of that event was unique to each.

Marriage is an event; being married to another person is an event in life—whether it lasts five minutes or fifty years. This book is ultimately about how these women react to, accept, do not accept, resent, make the best of, the ending of the event. “The horror of having no place he needs her to be,” is how the widow in the first story feels the void which the cessation of the event has left in her life. Her sense of loss is expressed in the immenseness of minutia, in the universality of small things, like eating and advertising signs and straightening a throw, and the event that ended for her is essentially touch— personal, intimate and introspective.

Some stories are longer than others. The first is about 4,000 words and the second less than 1,000, the longest being about 7,500, and the shortest a brief 300 or so. I mention this, not to be tediously definitive, but because some people may expect a sense of uniformity in their reading. They will not find it here—the stories in Widow are as diverse as their word counts.

From the almost “body-artist” introversion of “Widow,” we move to the consciousness-streaming memory of “The Long Table,” to the combination of raunchy sweetness, literary delicacy and sexual irony of “Boys.” Each story has its own identity, its own event, and it’s either up front and in-your-face, or standing half-hidden in background shadow.

Before starting to read, I imagined that Widow would be a book of essentially American stories, an anthology of mini Annie Proulxs and Don Delillos or some other internal monologues of nostalgic melodrama and folksy truisms. But although we do get this overpowering sense of place in “Gut,” the collection does have a more ecumenical dimension, and stories such as “Pink” and “Tattoo” and “Place” have a faint flavor of Jerzy Kosinski and an essence of Kafka (I won’t call it -esque) plus some traces of the liturgical bleakness of Donleavy’s purposely unAmerican, Fairy Tale of New York. This may or may not be born out of Latiolais’ formal background in English and Literature. That’s not to say, of course, that these inferred influences are anything more than unintentional; and they are, of course, totally original in their masquerade.

The harassed sensuality of the opening stories progresses through word-games and associations to “The Moon,” a tale merry in its Hansel/Gretelish folklore. It was reassuring to see that not all Latiolais’ widows were unapproachably aloof. Some were earthy and some were utilitarian, like in “Crazy,” and some had a sense of humor, like in the satirical “Damned Spot.”

The stories also move in time and are not stationary in tenure, though precise chronology is ambiguous. Time can also speed up and slow down, as in the slow-motion metaphorical abstraction of “Involution” and the alacrity of “Thorns” and the leisurely strolling pace of “Burqa.” In “Caduceus,” we get a hint of Latiolais’ love of poetry and a smell of the elegiac honesty of Louis MacNeice and the ghost of Sylvia Plath lurks somewhere within “Hoarding.” The stories get a bit political in “The Legal Case” and “Breathe,” though nothing too seditious, so the book maintains its sense of literary savoir faire to the end.

The writing itself is polite, feminist perhaps, and perhaps even a little elitist, but there is an underlying brutality that is self-parodying in its ruthlessness, in its uncompromising and unapologetic attitude, which is a perfect counterpoint to the literary chic.

In conclusion and on a personal note—because you have to get personal with this book or you miss the point—the stories made me think about the women in my own life: wife and mother, and what the word widow might mean to them. My mother was a widow for many years, but never spoke much about it. I asked my wife what the word meant to her and she said, quite tellingly, “me, as I was before you, and as I would be again . . . but different.”

The widows in this book have no names, and this titular vacuum lends to the notion that the book could just as easily be called Widowers— such is the gender-transcending nature and appeal of the collection.