Rating:A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, by Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco (2011), 415 pages.
Joyce Carol Oates, in my experience, is a writer you either love or hate (love because of how effortlessly and incisively she maps out the terrain inside her character’s minds, or hate because of her compulsive, neurotic, nearly deranged use of the em dash, and its accompanying run-on sentences.) Both of these qualities are present in typical abundance in A Widow’s Story. I think it’s safe to say that if you love Oates, you will love this memoir, and if you find her writing style makes you want to beat your head against the wall, you will want to read it only after precautionary measures (a bicycle helmet, say) have been taken.
In this, her first memoir, Oates tells about the sudden, unexpected death of her beloved husband of forty-six years and the grief that subsequently consumed her. Oates has avoided the all-t0o-common pitfall for the grief memoirist—that of becoming so lost in one’s private pain that the writer forgets she is writing for a reader, and that this reader requires an actual story (as opposed to a self-absorbed three hundred page journal entry)—and has ended up with what I think is the best memoir about grief and loss I have ever read. Her ability to access all of her feelings, while at the same time maintaining an analytical distance from those feelings is a skill that sets her work apart from a long line of books I had high hopes for, but which ultimately failed in their efforts to bring me into their world.
A Widow’s Story is beautifully told, completely accessible, and not to be missed by either the memoir fan or the general reader. But, as with all of Oates’ work: Read safely, wear a helmet.
Of all deliveries I have come to most dread those from Harry & David those ubiquitous entrepreneurs of fateful occasions—Sympathy Gift boxes adorned with Sympathy Ribbons hurtled in all directions across the continent. Why are people sending me these things? Do they imagine that grief will be assuaged by chocolate-covered truffles, pate de foie gras, pepperoni sausages? Do they imagine that assistants shield me from the labor of dealing with such a quantity of trash? This morning I am eager to forestall another delivery of sympathy baskets for I have dragged out all the trash cans I can find in the hope that the trash will be hauled away, I have just emptied the mailbox—so stuffed, I could barely yank out its contents—and this mail I am “sorting” by way of throwing most of it into the trash can—there arrives the UPS delivery truck—another Harry & David monstrosity?—”Mrs. Smith? Sign here, please”—crying bitter tears as I open the carton—tear open the cellophane wrapper—tear at the basket cramming into the trash can packages of chocolate-covered truffles, bags of gourmet popcorn, here is a Gourmet Riviera Pear—unnaturally large, tasteless, stately as a waxen fruit in a nineteenth-century still life—here is a jar of gourmet mustard, and here a jar of gourmet olives—whoever has sent me this, I have no idea—the card is lost—the label is lost—I am frantic to get rid of this party food—I am infuriated, disgusted, ashamed—for of course I should be grateful, I should be writing thank-you notes like a proper widow, I should not be weeping and muttering to myself in icy rain at the end of our driveway bare-headed and shivering in a rage of futility accusing my husband “You did this! —you went outside in the freezing cold, I know you did, this is exactly what you did, when I was away in Riverside you did this very thing, you were careless with your life, you threw away both our lives with your carelessness contracting a cold, a cold that became pneumonia, pneumonia that became cardiopulmonary collapse—and here as if in rebuke to my raging despair is a Harry & David Miniature Rose—a delicate little rosebush that measures about five inches in height—which I think that I will keep—though, back inside the house in better lighting, pried out of its packing-case and set on the kitchen counter, the Miniature Rose appears to be already wilting, near-dead.