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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

A Widow’s Story

I spent these past two weeks on two books that are apparently in great demand at the local library (they are 2-week books, instead of the regular 4-week reading period). I went in to pick up Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and saw A Widow’s Story prominently placed on the 2-week shelf. And I picked that up as well (so what if I had three unread books waiting for me at home). I believe that one should not read books that one finds too hard to read, so hard that reading is no longer fun, that reading is a chore. And so I feel a little less guilty about not being to ever finish (or go beyond page 44) of Catch-22, after trying many many times. Sometimes, I just don’t get a book, and I let that be.

JCO’s book, I got. What I didn’t quite get is this review on NY times.

A Widow’s Story is precisely that, a fairly personal memoir of the time immediately following (and preceding) Joyce Carol Oates’ husband’s entirely unexpected death. JCO certainly rambles on quite a bit, but her ramblings are very readable – she describes her anguish and depression throughout the book, an emotion that certainly dominates the book. But this is a memoir of grief, so how can one say that this emotion was overused? Yes, there are other memoirs of grief that are witty, funny even, shorter, more to-the-point, but that doesn’t necessarily make one less or more readable than the other. Or one experience less or more painful than the other.

In high school, my favorite work of fiction was Jane Eyre. I was completely taken in by the dynamics between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester, and played their conversations in my head many, many times. In one such scene, when Jane and a blind Edward have been re-united, Jane says to Edward:

“…I thought anger would be better than grief…”

And the statement immediately resonated with me. So, it was this passage from Jane Eyre I thought of, when I read JCO say:

“Better to be angry, than to be depressed.”

“I am thinking with envy how much healthier, how much more exhilerating, such emotions [anger and rage] would be, than the heavyheartedness of grief like a sodden overcoat the widow must wear.”

Very true.

The NY Times review takes issue with the fact that JCO doesn’t inform her readers about her impending engagement or second marriage (she does ‘hint’ about it in the very last page). And that the book doesn’t really talk  about the ‘dynamics’ of her first marriage or give the impression that JCO and Ray Smith were affectionate or close. In fact, JCO does delve quite a bit into aspects that Ray and she did not know about each other, and now never will. However, I do get the impression of a quiet intimacy, which may not sound exciting enough to some, but seems real enough to me.

Well. The book is about widowhood, and about Joyce Carol Oates as a widow, Ray Smith’s widow. I agree with her that details of her second marriage don’t really have a place in this memoir, and that the absence of this revelation does not make this work dishonest. Though, I admit, I think that JCO’s widowhood is hardly typical and might not reflect how other people feel or deal with their losses. For one, JCO has a lot of well-meaning friends, who not only send beautiful notes of sympathy (and rejected sympathy baskets), but do help her physically and mentally with the many death duties, driving her around, giving her legal advice, inviting her to dinners, and just being there for her. JCO also has a house, and a job, both of which, and especially the latter, help her through the days. And not many widows and widowers find love within a year of their loss. So, I think that JCO story is painful, but perhaps not typical.

JCO shares many of the condolence letters she received during the period. Many of these are very thoughtful and touching, though I’m not sure how much they help a grieving person. JCO herself relies a lot on the kindness and love of close friends, though she speaks of her

“Fear of draining friends’ capacity for sympathy”

Well, life goes on. Painful or not. And it’s time for me to move to a cheerful book or two. Or even one that makes me angry. But not sad. No, not sad.

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JCO on becoming a widow

On the whole, I must admit I am now quite curious about Joyce Carol Oates. I hadn’t read a single work of hers, and did not know what she looked like before I heard her talk with Tom Ashbrook one windy Spring day. And I learned that she was based just a few miles (in Princeton) out of where I lived and that she’d recently published her memoirs – specifically her memoirs on becoming a widow after 47 years of marriage to Raymond Smith. Ray’s death was very sudden, and JCO spoke about how his passing left her an emotional cripple, and how her professional obligations were really what egged her on during a very difficult period. She spoke often about her ‘target audience’ – widows and widowers, and ‘hoped’ that the book would help them in some measure.

What really stood out to me in those 40 odd minutes of the conversation, was her talking about, and reading a passage from the book A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, where she describes a voice memento of her husband’s – a recorded message on their home phone that she hung on to for a year or so after his death, dialing the home number a few times a day just to hear his voice. I was so touched by this admission, and I could easily picture it in my mind – as if a scene from a movie, of a widow frantically dialing her own number again and again, and trying to capture the essence of the dead person’s voice, etching in her memory the nuances of the voice, the words, and the cadence as the last, ‘living’, memory of this person no longer living.

I was now curious about the book, curious about JCO’s other books, having never thought of reading them. I then came upon a not very charitable review of his book, in New York Times, no less. Critic Maslin raises some questions: why does JCO who dwells on episodes such as that of the voice message, and yet choose to ignore her emerging relationship with soon-to-be second husband? (JCO, in the podcast, says that talking about her second husband in a book about her first husband, would not quite be right). Is JCO tapping into the “lucrative loss-of-spouse market”, she asks. I need to read the book and really see if JCO makes a less than complimentary allusion to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking – another memoir of grief.

I am now a great deal more curious about the book, and JCO’s other works, though I am not quite sure where to begin. Sourland? The Assignation? Give me your heart?

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