A WIDOW’S STORY by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Quote:

“I think with horror of the future, in which Ray will not exist.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (FEB 15, 2011)

This is perhaps the bravest book I’ve ever read. It is searingly personal, raw and and stark. It portrays its creator, the author, in a relief, almost without exception, that is equally painful and tragic. There is no turning away, no place the writer hides–and consequently little relief afforded the reader. There she is, the new widow, Joyce Carol Smith–the persona behind the writer Joyce Carol Oates–struggling to stay alive amidst blinding grief, as revealed in a journey the destination of which is unsure. We know of her because the widely acclaimed writer, Joyce Carol Oates, tell us of her. (I will set aside, for the moment, the alter-ego artifact that is the dualistic structure of this book.) We cannot divert our eyes. A book that is brave, like A Widow’s Story is brave, is in my scheme of things, worthy. It is worthy simply because whenever truth is revealed so unapologetically, without reservation–hence bravely composed–one must simply recognize it as such and deem it of consequence. It simply has, consequently, an intrinsic worth. What would we make of existence if it were otherwise? If art is, in any manner a reflection of experience, then we must salute it when it is created without deference to the consequences–no matter how uncomfortable it might make us feel.

Joyce Carol Smith lost her husband Ray Smith on February 18, 2008. The cause of death: cardiopulmonary arrest–pneumonia. The time of death: 12:50 a.m. His wife of 48 years had left the hospital, gone home to rest, her husband seemingly on the mend. “Ray is said to be improving,” Oates wrote a friend the night before his death. But twenty-four hours later, at 12:38 a.m. (details permeate the narrative) the call comes–”a phone ringing at the wrong time.” It is the call the author has “been dreading since the nightmare vigil began–informing me that ‘your husband’–‘Raymond Smith’–is in ‘critical condition’–his blood pressure has ‘plummeted’–his heartbeat has ‘accelerated’–the voice is asking if I want ‘extraordinary measures’ in the event that my husband’s heart stops–I am crying, ‘Yes!…Save him! Do anything you can!”

I quote at length because in this one passage the reader can sense the shock, the terror, the frustration and panic that infuses almost every page of the book. Raymond dies before Joyce returns to him at the hospital. Leaving his side is the first of what she deems to be her many missteps–missteps that will haunt her throughout the ensuing weeks and months. It is the first instance of what she will reflect upon to torture herself. She will likewise resolve that she should have taken him into Manhattan, where his care might have been of a higher order, rather than Princeton where they live; that she should have been home and not out of town when he presumably caught the chill that presaged the illness; that she should have long-ago challenged her husband’s general practitioner and his casual prescriptions for antibiotics over the years. Surely they weakened Raymond’s immune system. And so on.

The Smiths are a couple, who, without children and sharing complementary careers–she the writer, he an editor and publisher–wove their lives together into a tight and resilient singular fabric. Ms. Oates relates that the number of nights spent apart in the decades of marriage can be counted on a couple of hands. So, when the separation of death is made manifest, a vacuum of seemingly horrid proportions descends. “I am thinking that never have I been alone so much,” she writes a couple weeks following the death. “…so starkly unmitigatedly alone , as I have been since Ray has died….There is a terror in aloneness. Beyond even loneliness.”

The exploration of “a terror in aloneness” is relentless–and exhausting. To Ms. Oates suicide becomes a option worthy of consideration. She hoards pills, and considers methods. Indeed, this book is equal parts grief and survival. Her grief transports her into a world where the continuation of (her) existence becomes a matter of objective consideration. Mid-way through the book, Ms. Oates experiences a hallucination, a metaphor for suicide, in a “reptile-thing–the basilisk” which haunts and dogs her, intoning words of existential doubt: “You know you can end this at any time. Your ridiculous trash-soul. Why should you outlive your husband? If you love him as you claim…Outliving your husband is a low vile vulgar thing and you do not deserve to live an hour longer…” The basilisk, a mythic creature, who according to Pliny the Elder will render dead on the spot anyone who beholds its eyes, chases Ms. Oates through the latter half of the book. We obviously know the outcome, that she survives, lives to write the book, but we are left with the impression that she does not master the beast. It would be a delightful literary nuance, the beast’s survival, if the implication were not so tragic.

Like a finely constructed novel, a theme is developed mid-book which shines a light into the corners of the narration. It is, in these dark corners, revealed that despite the longing, the horror of loss, the basilisk’s threats, something has not settled properly in the reflection of this long marriage. We got a hint of this earlier. “In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious–unless it was unavoidable.” It is a phrase that will catch the eye of anyone who has experienced a long and successful marriage. “For what,” she concludes, “is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?” Given that all long marriages are possibly successful for reasons particular to each, we can look past this polite practice of insulating the troublesome aspects of experience from loved ones. But there is more: Her husband did not read her work. “In this way, I walled off from my husband the part of my life that is ‘Joyce Carol Oates’–which is to say, my writing career.” There are secrets here too. There is Raymond’s sister whom she has never met–and the in-laws she hardly knows. (“Where Ray became very fond of my parents…I scarcely knew Ray’s parents.”) And his experience in seminary? “Exactly what happened at the seminary, I don’t know–Ray didn’t speak of it except generally, obliquely–Things didn’t work out. I dropped out after a few months.”

This theme, that of the gaps in the marriage, runs parallel to those of grief and existential doubt. It is a deeper current and we must dive down to it. And that is precisely what Ms. Oates does. She is a master story teller and even here, here in this most brave of narrations, she controls the pace, she works and develops a theme, exercising her considerable talent and rendering (her) experience into a fashion of art. The marriage gaps are best symbolized in the discovery of a novel, long-ago set aside and abandoned by Raymond. She knew of it’s existence previously, but had not read it. Like other things in the marriage, it had been respected by the other as off-limits. She had not asked to read it, had not inquired about it. “As a wife, I had never wanted to upset my husband. I had never wanted to quarrel, to disagree or to be disagreeable. To be not loved seemed to me the risk, if a wife confronted her husband against his wishes.” She reads the novel–but the mysteries between them only seem to deepen.

I mentioned above the dual nature of this searingly self-reflective memoir. There is the writer, Ms. Oates, writing about the widow, Mrs. Smith, who dons the cloak of Ms. Oates, transforming herself into a master of the literary arts, who turns back and writes about Mrs. Smith. It is a curious “meta” relationship. It is too, obviously, the method the widow must employ to protect herself, to survive the terror of aloneness. Mrs. Smith is, in other words, the subject matter of Ms. Oates, the observer and scribe. Curiously, the grief of Mrs. Smith is the rough marble by which Ms. Oates chisels her craft into art. The book is plainly a success on this level, but as a memoir one almost wonders, oddly, if Mrs. Smith, the widow, is not being exploited by Ms. Oates the artist? That question alone brings a prism of complexity to the book that, in my experience, the typical memoir typically lacks. Ultimately the reader experiences a fashion of classic Aristotelian catharsis, pain transcended through art, through this literary device. We hope the widow to be as fortunate.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 173 readers
PUBLISHER: Ecco (February 15, 2011)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Joyce Carol Oates
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read reviews of more Joyce Carol Oates books:




Written as Lauren Kelly:

Written as Rosamond Smith:

Younger Readers:


February 15, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Non-fiction, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.