four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-A Widows StoryA remarkably prolific author, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than 100 books in a distinguished 47-year career that has earned her four National Book Awards, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a PEN/Faulkner Award, and a Pulitzer Prize.

The Topic: On February 18, 2008, Oates unexpectedly lost her husband of nearly 50 years. Less than one month before his 78th birthday, Raymond Smith, cofounder and editor of the Ontario Review, died of complications while recovering from pneumonia. In this candid account of the agonizing months that followed, Oates stumbles through a fog of despair, rage, guilt, and fear. Unable to eat or sleep, she struggles to get out of bed each morning. Life becomes a dreary, never-ending procession of official forms and gourmet gift baskets. Fantasies of suicide sustain her, and she wonders if she will ever write again. Oates ultimately finds comfort in friendship, work, and the discovery of her late husband's unfinished novel, which elicits a deeper understanding of the man and their life together.
Ecco. 432 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 9780062015532

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Oates has parsed the explosive, psychological lives of her fictional characters with laserlike precision in countless novels and short stories. In her astonishingly candid A Widow's Story: A Memoir, she turns inward with equally brutal intensity. Her suffering gushes forth in page after page of detailed prose, snatches of sentences, reportorial and intuitive, emotional and reflective." Geeta Sharma Jensen

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Reading A Widow's Story can be exhausting at times. ... However, while we might like to think otherwise in our neat and tidy society, death is a messy business and the emotions that surround the loss of the love of one's life can be too much for even the most stoic of us to bear." Meganne Fabrega

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"What Oates discovers in A Widow's Story, a cascade-of-consciousness that will mostly mesmerize you and surely move you, is that grief can also unleash an identity crisis: Where and how does imagination fit into a marriage? ... The prodigious author of some 50 novels and perhaps 1,000 stories--as well as poems, essays, plays--has assembled a book more painfully self-revelatory than anything Oates the fiction writer or critic has ever dared to produce." Ann Hulbert

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"This ‘handbook' on widowhood, as Oates calls it, is essential for anyone who has experienced loss. Whether detailing ‘the lengthy drumroll of death-duties' or, in her darkest moments, describing herself edging toward madness, Oates proves an utterly compelling protagonist." Carmela Ciuraru

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Is it perverse to suggest that Joyce Carol Oates's memoir of widowhood is as enthralling as it is painful? Oates has always focused her writing so intensely that virtually all her prose is compelling, but this brave account of her recent grief seems composed with something close to abandon." Valerie Sayers

Kansas City Star 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This book isn't without flaws, one of which involves Oates' compulsion to chronicle every last moment. ... And yet it's impossible to be unmoved by Oates' Story, by the degree to which she sees her husband everywhere she looks, as she finds beauty in the elusive notion of renewal." Kevin Canfield

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"This tendency to get lost in minutiae is understandable in a grieving and profoundly depressed widow, but we expect an artist to be more selective. ... That nothing goes unexpressed is at once the book's strength (given the clarity of her perceptions) and its weakness (given the flagging energy of the reader)." F. Cord Volkmer

Critical Summary

Adding her own distinct, self-assured voice to the recent, post–Magical Thinking wave of bereavement memoirs, the normally reserved and private Oates openly reveals the anguish she suffered following the death of her beloved husband. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this powerful account bears many of the hallmarks of Oates's fiction, and the talented author lays herself bare with the same intensity she exercises in dissecting her characters. However, the Wall Street Journal argued that such works are "artistically and emotionally effective in inverse proportion to their length," and several agreed that A Widow's Story, at more than 400 pages, is too long and weighed down by minutiae to maintain the emotional force for which the genre is celebrated. Nevertheless, readers will find it impossible to remain unaffected.

Cited by the Critics

The Year of Magical Thinking | Joan Didion (2005): Award Star National Book Award. In this now-classic exploration of grief, Didion recounts the year that followed the death of her husband, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2006)