{Book Expert} Linda Wolfe: Review of A Widow’s Story

In A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’s describes the painful year following her husband’s sudden death. FOF book reviewer Linda Wolfe, a widow herself, praises Oates’s warmth, but questions her sincerity.

A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about her first year of widowhood after the death of her husband Ray Smith, a scholar and editor to whom she’d been married for almost fifty years, is bound to call to mind Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.  Since hardly a book lover over fifty hasn’t read the Didion work–and you must be a book lover if you’re reading my FOF reviews–I’ll get the comparisons out of the way right upfront. Where Didion was concise, precise and poetic, Oates is verbose, expansive, and prosaic, inclined to give us everything and the kitchen sink, from reporting her terrors about entering her empty house and running out of death certificates, to reprinting emails the complete emails she exchanged with friends. Nevertheless, this is a warmer work than Didion’s, more intimate, more straightforward, and truer to the actual day-by-day, minute-by-minute thoughts and experiences of the newly-widowed woman. (I’ve been there myself, so I know the territory.)

Every widow will recognize herself in Oates’s thoughts and experience. Take her anguish about being left alone:  “When you are not alone, you are shielded,” she writes, “from the stark implacable unspeakable indescribable terror of aloneness. You are shielded from the knowledge of your own insignificance….When you are loved you are blind to your own worth; or, you are indifferent to such thoughts.”

Or take her bouts of what Didion termed “magical thinking”:  remembering the times she traveled without Ray, Oates tries telling herself “with childish logic that if Ray were alive but not with me, that absence would be identical with this absence.”

Then there’s the  bursting into tears at odd moments. The inability to sleep at night. The depression that makes even simple chores seem impossible. The rage at having to secure documents just in order to access one’s money. The horrifying sensation that not just a beloved partner has been lost, but that one’s own self has been lost as well. Above all, the recurrent thoughts of suicide.

Many married women think to themselves–or even say aloud, as a friend of mine said to me just the other day–that if their partners were to die, they’d kill themselves. Oates always imagined she’d choose that course. “Frequently in the past,” she writes, “I had consoled myself that, should something happen to Ray, I would not want to outlive him. I could not bear to outlive him!  I would take a fatal dose of sleeping pills.”

Soon after Ray’s death, she does get out all the leftover sleeping pills and tranquilizers she’s been prescribed over the years, but she doesn’t take any of them. Their presence is reassuring, but she continues to have suicidal thoughts. To the widow, she says, “Suicide promises A good night’s sleep–with no interruptions. And no next day.”

Wrestling with her demons, Oates sets herself the modest goal of getting through each day.  And at book’s end, she declares,“Of the widow’s countless death-duties, there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think, I kept myself alive.”

Oates doesn’t tell us that besides keeping herself alive, within a year of her husband’s death she found a new partner, became engaged, and in a few months married him. I hate to sound cynical, but I suspect Oates is saving that story for her next book. Too bad. Leaving out this information, which is common knowledge in the literary world, makes this otherwise memorable book seem unfortunately disingenuous.

Linda Wolfe is a renowned journalist, essayist and novelist who happened to move to a new apartment right next door to the Faboverfifty offices. Now she writes brilliant book reviews just for us. Read more about Linda.

  • Rosanne Penoyer

    I haven’t read this book but did read ‘Magical Thinking’. Since my husband died 3 years ago I have an almost impossible time getting through a whole book for reasons I cannot explain. But when this ability returns I might check this out. Good review and very relevant extra info re Oates.

  • eve preminger

    just what a review should do—-make you certain whether or not you want to read a book—in this case: Not. But this is easy when an honest, brilliant writer reviews a shoddy, slopppy fake.

  • nancy k schlossberg

    Excellent review by Linda Wolfe. As a result, I have decided not to read either book. I am glad to read about them and thought the contrast was excellent. But in my view the books are therapeutic for the authors but don’t teach anything for others. The value is showing that people get through a major set of transitions even though they imagine, in advance, they won’t.
    nancy k schlossberg
    http://www.transitionsthroughlife.com

    • Sundari

      kudos for rocking john and dayrrl. i wanted to go see them when they will be in la, but i can’t afford to rent a car to drive down for the show, and there is no way my car is making it to the end of the block let alone halfway across california.oh well. i guess i gotta wait until they hit the road again

  • Ellen Heltzel

    Hi Linda — I reviewed this same book for The Seattle Times and think you do a buffo job discussing it. My own take is that The NY Times went overboard suggesting that Oates’s engagement proves her insincerity; certainly someone who was as well taken care of as she needed another mate to fill the emotional and practical voids. What bothered me about the book was her willingness to dig deep into her dead husband’s very private life, to speculate about his family and how it scarred him. Those were HIS secrets to reveal, not hers. Her revelations strip away his dignity, showing that he, unlike her, couldn’t make the imaginative leap into fiction because he could never find a way to distance himself from the hurt he suffered. Maybe another writer would frame such a discovery with enough compassion to make it seem brave rather than exploitive. In this case, however, the narcissism that may be a normal companion to grief makes the book seem like it’s all about her, not Ray.

    • Linda

      Yes, narcissism is what stands out in this book. Something your comment reminded me that I had the distinct feeling that Ray couldn’t make the imaginative leap into fiction not because of his family but because he didn’t want to compete with Oates. He put his literary aspirations aside for her, and went the non-threatening academic route. (How do you compete with a word-producing machine like her anyway?) Whatcha think?

  • Catherine Davis

    I have been a widow for over ten years and am still not in a relationship. I don’t feel comfortable with other men to the extreme that I would want it to be physical. I don’t know if I am afraid of being hurt or afraid of being untrue to my deceased spouse. Whichever it is, how can you write a book about wanting to kill oneself and getting remarried in the next breath? Odd I think and I don’t feel I would want to read this book. It seems hypocritical to me.

  • Jessica Bernstein

    Perhaps Oates’s “stark implacable unspeakable indescribable terror of aloneness” explains both her suicidal thoughts following her husband’s death and her sudden recent marriage. Sounds like an interesting book. Excellent analysis by Linda Wolfe.

  • jane gelfman

    This is SUCH a brilliant review of Oates’s book, especially in the graceful way it compares Oates’s let-it-all-hang-out prose to Joan Didion’s remarkably thoughtful memoir on the same subject. One is not obliged to tell every single thing about oneself in a memoir — it is not an autobiography. Joan Didion’s memoir leaves out plenty that is not relevant to her specific subject, without transgressing her subject or misleading her readers.On the other hand, Joyce Carol Oates has clearly sought the reader’s sympathy for her loneliness in a way that seems deceitful when one discovers she was engaged in another relationship while writing the book, and remarried before it was published.

  • ggratch

    found the review moving, particularly the focus on loneliness and distressed about the courtship/marriage which calls into question what she’s describing about her experience during that period–seems more than just planning another book

  • Ora

    I am a widow of one year, married for 32. I read Didion’s book and wondered about Oate’s view of widowhood…
    Linda, I was wondering whether or not to read this and now I know I will.. the subject matter that you mentioned is all to real for me…
    My question is the same as yours ? married in such a short time… I need to hear those details…
    Something I cannot even imagine…how do you go from suicide to marriage in less than a year ? hmmm.
    Thanks for the synopsis and viewpoint.

  • Beth Corrigan

    I’m not (yet) a widow but did read Joan Didion’s book a couple of years ago. Your review of the Oates book puts it on my list of books to read. Lovely the way you contrasted the two. And thank you for pointing out the influence she didn’t mention – a new partner…