Friday, April 22, 2011

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates — 432 pgs

In this haunting and lyrical memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, a wife speaks candidly about her husband’s untimely death and the repercussions it has on her life after the unthinkable happens. When Joyce’s husband Ray is up earlier than usual one morning, she immediately notices that something is just not right. Ray looks pale and clammy, and is sitting amid a tower of crumpled tissues, and when Joyce suggests that he may need to go to the emergency room, the two think this trip will be just an annoyance and interruption. But it turns out that Ray has pneumonia, and though at first he improves, a secondary infection suddenly takes his life. Joyce isn’t able to see Ray before he dies, and it’s only one of the things she begins to obsesses about after Ray’s tragic death. Now Joyce is alone and becoming unhinged. Though she immediately begins thinking about suicide, she decides against it and begins her painful days as a widow in a world that feels alien and hostile to her. As she begins to live a life without Ray, her most steadfast and loyal companion, Joyce becomes troubled by insomnia, anger and depression, and repeatedly considers suicide as the answer to the pain she feels. Her only redemption is through her steadfast friends and the writing classes she teaches, but in times of immense stress, even this seems like it’s not enough. In this memoir filled with remembrances, email correspondence and personal asides, we see Joyce Carol Oates as never before, and are on the sidelines as she reveals the shocking destruction left behind when her life mate tragically passes away.

Not having read any of Oates’ previous work, I wondered if I would be able to connect with the story the author tells. Not knowing much about Oates seemed like it would be a hindrance in this case, but ultimately, this book tells the story of what could happen to any one of us. With Oates’ ability to capture the hidden sides of her life along with the more personal topics, I was able to make a connection with her that made this book come alive in my hands. Oates captures all the rage, frustration and pain that losing Ray has caused her with a fluidity and emotional resonance that surprised me and wrung my heart in the most tender way possible.

Joyce and Ray had somewhat of a restrained relationship which I initially found odd. This could have been because Ray was somewhat older than Joyce and had grown up in a different era. They didn’t have conversations about painful or uncomfortable topics, and Ray was sometimes emotionally distant when it came to his previous life. They didn’t share their writing with one another and they never had children. I think Joyce looked at Ray as sort of a father figure, and what she got out of her marriage was stability, affection and comfort. This is very different from my marriage and most marriages I know, for it would never cross my mind to be reticent with my partner and not share everything that was on my mind with him. It was almost as if there were barriers between the two that would not be crossed, but it worked for the two of them and there was certainly a lot of love shared within the confines of their relationship.

When Joyce loses Ray, she loses a significant piece of herself as well, and it was frightening to hear her speak so matter-of-factly about taking her own life in response to losing her husband. She couldn't take the well-meaning condolences her friends and acquaintances offered her, and became very despondent over all the things she now had to deal with. She relates some of the insensitivity that Ray’s death inspired and speaks at length about the monster that lived inside her soul eating away all that was healthy and good from her life. Joyce was ill-equipped to deal with what was going on around her and often she spoke about having two personalities: the public one that functioned and even smiled and laughed around her friends and colleagues, and the private one that was desperately trying to hold on to life. She dealt with horrible insomnia and felt like an alien in her empty house, eventually becoming addicted to various medications in her efforts to stave off her despair and apathy. Joyce found her life again through the careful ministrations of her friends, but her road out of the hell she was in was long and painful, and even towards the conclusion of the book, it was clear that she still had a long way to go.

One of the things that made this book so compelling was Joyce’s ability to candidly express her despair and confusion over the loss of Ray. She’s extremely capable when it comes to relating her feelings and emotions that were provoked within her, and at times the book read like a lyrical portrayal of heartbreak. It was easy to empathize with her because she was so familiar with the contours of her heart and mind, and when utter destruction set in, she was able to give her words and feelings a gravity and depth that they would touch even the coldest reader. it was hard to watch her struggle like this, and very hard for me to realize that even when I turned the last page, her heartache hadn’t yet abated. I found her willingness to be open about even the most minute details of her life with Ray and the chronicling of the impact of her loss to be very courageous and noteworthy. Hers was a landscape of horrible despair, but nothing was done to sugar-coat what she was feeling at any time.

This book would be ideal for anyone who’s gone through a similar loss, and even for those who are dealing with crippling emotional circumstances of a different nature. Oates’ ability to capture the fragility of a wounded soul is remarkable and will make readers feel as if they’ve found someone who can share and understand their pain. It was a dark read for sure, but one that made me think about many things and made me realize just how the death of a loved one can change a life. A very intense and worthy read. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

25 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I tried reading her fiction before and found it too depressing. So I imagine this would be even worse for me! But lovely review - it really gives me a flavor of what the book is like!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Wow, this seems like something I should read before reading her fiction as it might give me a little bit of insight into what I've heard is some pretty deep, sad stuff. Thanks for the review, even if it's about a pretty blue topic.

Jenny said...

Wonderful review! I so wanted to read this and just haven't yet.. I think part of me is worried the topic will be too difficult for me, mainly because that's a big fear of mine. But on the other hand I know she's a great writer and I can only imagine how capable she is, like you say, of expressing her thoughts regarding these experiences.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've not read any of her books either, though I always say I should. Not only would this probably be a very helpful read for anyone who has lost a spouse, but I think it would be good for anyone to read, just so maybe they can empathize with a friend or relative who has gone through it. I'm sure this was not an easy one to get through.

Anita said...

I remember when this book was mentioned to me the first time I was struck by how intense it seemed.
What a wonderful review, I'm not sure it's the right time for me to read it, but it does intrigue me.

Darlene said...

Great review Heather. I noticed this book a little while ago and it hit a chord with me. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to pick it up or not but I think I'll end up reading it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

Anna said...

I've read a few of Oates' books so this one interests me. Sounds heartbreaking but hopeful in a way that she obviously didn't end her life.

bermudaonion said...

I've never read Oates' work, but do have this one. I'm not sure the time is right for me to read it, though.

Suko said...

I love her fiction. She is a wonderful writer. Excellent review, as always, Zibilee.

Beth F said...

I have this one on my list. I've been holding off reading because I was wondering if it would be too emotional. Your review has made me think I should go ahead and read it regardless.

Amy said...

This is a wonderful review. I'm so glad you liked this book. I had such a different image of Oates before reading her memoir. It's almost like she's two different people, the woman and the author. I found the part of the book where she talks about her writing self very interesting.

Audra said...

Great review -- I'm not wild about Oates' fiction -- too heavy and too subtle, at the same time! -- but I can see how her style would be suited for such a huge emotional story such as this. People deal with grief differently and I have to say, I appreciate a grief memory that is honest about the darkest parts of mourning.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Wonderful review Jill. I am thinking of getting it for my SIL who is still having a tough time since my brother passed away in 2009, but I am not sure she would read it.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I called you Jill today; sorry I know you are not Jill :(

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Wow, a very powerful review, Heather! I knew the premise of the memoir, but didn't realize just how open about her despair and loss Oates was.

I can't imagine the hopelessness - a "routine" trip to the ER ending in his death. And not being able to see him before he died.

Makes you realize that we *shouldn't* put off saying what's really important to us. .... Don't leave any "I shoulda"s behind.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I have read a couple of her novels and she is an extremely talented writer; however this topic might be too difficult for me to read about. I can't imagine losing my husband - the pain of that must be absolutely horrific. Despite that, your review made me want to read the book! So good job to you. ;)

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I have noticed that the loss of someone is hard to write, If it's not written just so it doesn't hit home. Lovely review so glad this was a worth while read.

Marie said...

I really need to read this. I've read Oates short stories and found them to be amazing, and there's been so much great buzz about this. Must! I have a copy from a conference and should really dig it out.

nomadreader said...

I really want to read this one. I know it's been compared to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (which I loved!), and it sounds so intriguing. I've also never read Oates, although I have quite a few of her titles on my TBR.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

This is one of the books that made my wishlist. I haven't read much by Oates, but what I have read has been good and thought provoking. I love that you say that she approaches her feelings so honestly.

Geosi said...

I have not read any full length book from Oates but from what I gather from your review, she certainly deserves to be read. This is a brilliant review.

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

This is intense, It actually reminds me of a friend. Her husband died suddenly at the hospital with a basic surgery. I can see this reaching out to many

Jenners said...

This sounds so intense and personal and brutal. I thank you for sharing it with me. I do think that grief is such a unique and personal emotion...and one that is hard to pin down for anyone. I'm not surprised you leave the book with her grief unresolved. Another thing that interests me is how grief for the loss of a parent differs from grief for the loss of a spouse. I imagine they may be two very different animals. Beautifully written review...as always.

Erin said...

I've never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates, but of all the books if hers I've heard about, your review of this one makes it sound like the one I'd most like. It must be so hard to experience something like the death of a spouse and also be able to write so honestly about it. Wonderful review!

Serena said...

This sounds fascinating. Oates' fiction is often hit and miss for me, and I either end up loving it or hating it. Sounds like a good way to get a glimpse into her personal life. thanks for the review.

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