Janice Williams's Reviews > A Widow's Story

A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates
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Jun 01, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: memoir
Read in June, 2011

A Widow's Story
Joyce Carol Oates

I am feeling a bit hesitant to write a Review (with a capital R) of this recently published book by Joyce Carol Oates for I am not qualified to critique her writing, only my heart and mind's reaction to the story she has told. With that caveat, I will share my impressions with you.

I purchased this book because, while I am not a widow, I am interested in how people adjust to life-altering situations; how they feel and what choices they make moving forward. Relationships are fascinating to me as well, particularly long marriages, mother-child, and sibling relationships.

I had read Joan Didion's book, The Year of Magical Thinking, a few years ago and it sits with all my "favorites"; so I was curious as to how Oates' book might compare. Not in terms of marriage or grief or circumstance, but in terms of a writer opening her heart and culling from the broken bits of it a story based on an individual's reality as relates to perhaps the most important person in her life.

Right from the start in A Widow's Story I loved the words chosen, the flow of the words and the meaning of the sentences. As an editor and reader, I kept finding wonderful sentences that I was tempted to highlight or underline, but did not. I did mark them with a bookmark and share them with you now; this will give you a small glimpse into the content of the book and the style of Oates' writing in this instance.

There is so much more to this book than any brief review can reveal. Like, The Year of Magical Thinking and The House on Teachers' Lane (by Rachel Simon) and, if I might add, Leaving the Hall Light On (by Madeline Sharples and recently published by the company I founded, Lucky Press), A Widow's Story is an individual story, a unique story, that is encased within the universal experience of our lives as modern women, often as one-half of a couple, as people struggling to make sense of family, loss, and our choices as writers. These are books to be kept in one's home library and to read again; to share with friends going through similar experiences, to give as gifts.

Here are a few passages that stood out to me in A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates (the author uses italics liberally in her writing and I apologize for not incorporating them below, with the exception of book titles, as Goodreads requires cumbersome html formatting just to include italics):

page 74: You made my life possible. I owe my life to you. ¶ I can't do this alone. ¶ And yet--what is the option? The Widow is one who has discovered that there is no option. ... ¶ This determination to manage--to cope--to do as much unassisted as possible--is the Widow's prerogative.

page 122: I am beginning to think Maybe I never knew him, really. Maybe I knew him only superficially--his deeper self was hidden from me. ¶ In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious--unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer's life can be distressing--negative reviews, rejections by magazines, difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers--disappointment with one's own work, on a daily/hourly basis!--it seemed to me to be a very good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too? ¶ 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.

page 141: As I read Ray's critical essays of this long-ago time ["Christabel and Geraldine: The Marriage of Life and Death," which appeared in the Bucknell Review in 1968.], I realize how close we'd been ... We had shared every detail of our teaching jobs--our classes, our colleagues, the high points and low points and surprises of our lives... ¶ I am made to think, not for the first time, that in my writing I have plunged ahead--head-on, heedlessly one might say--or "fearlessly"-- into my own future: this time of utter raw anguished loss. Though I may have had, since adolescence, a kind of intellectual/literary precocity, I had not experienced much; nor would I experience much until I was well into middle-age--the illnesses and deaths of my parents, this unexpected death of my husband. We play at paste til qualified for pearl says Emily Dickinson. Playing at paste is much of our early lives. And then, with the violence of a door slammed shut by wind rushing through a house, life catches up with us.

page 221: There's an ironic appropriateness to my presentation [in Cleveland, shortly after her husband's death]--"The Writer's 'Secret Life': Woundedness, Rejection, and Inspiration"--with its focus upon woundedness--especially in childhood. The writers of whom I speak--Samuel Beckett, the Brontës, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Sam Clemens, Eugene O'Neill among others--are brilliant examples of individuals who rendered woundedness into art; they are not writers of genius because they were wounded but because, being wounded, they were capable of transmuting their experience into something rich and strange and new and wonderful. Tears spring into my eyes when I quote Ernest Hemingway's stirring remark--it's so profound, I wil quote it ot the audience twice:

"From things that have happened and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason."

page 252: The horror is: one of the books which has been nominated for the [National Book Critics Circle] award is my Journal: 1973-1982. Into which--I've just recently discovered--I can't bring myself to look. ¶ How strange it is to the writer, whose life's-blood would seem to have been drained, in order that works of prose be "animated"--given a semblance of life through printed language--when the writer is obligated to revisit the work, at a later time. Sometimes it's a painful, powerful experience--opening a book, staring down at the lines of print and recalling--in the helpless, vertiginous way in which one recalls, or half-recalls, a lost dream--the emotional state of being you were in, at the time of the writing. ¶ In my case--a "posthumous" case--the feeling is But I was alive then! I remember that.

page 360-361: In marriage, as in any intimate relationship, there are sinkholes ... minefields. ...To Ray there was a sinkhole: his family. ¶ The sinkhole was immense, covering many acres: his family, the Church, hell. ¶ This sinkhole nearly pulled him into it, to drown. Before I'd met him, Ray said. ¶ Or so I'd gathered, as a young wife. ¶ ...In writing this, I feel that I am betraying Ray. Yet in not writing it, I am not being altogether honest.

page 361: Another time, when we'd first met ... Ray had spoken hesitantly of his sister who'd been "institutionalized." ¶ This was a coincidence! For my sister Lynn, eighteen years younger than me, had been institutionalized, too. ¶ So severely autistic, Lynn could not be kept at home beyond the age of eleven. She'd become violent, threatening my mother. This was a heartbreaking interlude in my parents' lives, after I'd gone away to college... ¶ But Ray's sister wasn't autistic. ... had not been mentally defective, but shed been--"excitable"--"difficult"--"disobedient." ¶ Of the four children in Ray's family, Carol had been the rebellious one. ...resisted following orders from her parents ... "over-reacted" to the religious climate of the household. ¶ What did this mean? I asked. ¶ She hadn't been a good girl--a good little Catholic girl. She hadn't been devout. She'd been loud, argumentative. ¶ And what happened to her? I asked. ¶ She was institutionalized. When she was about eleven. Like your sister. But for different reasons.

page 379: It's a fact, a man will love his father--in some way. ¶ Snarled and twisted like the roots of a gigantic tree--these are the contortions of familial love. ¶ Yet even now, if Ray were to return--could I ask him about his father? His family? Would I dare? Or would the slightest frown on Ray's part discourage me, and deflect the conversation onto another subject, as it always did? ¶ 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. ¶ And now, I am not loved. And what a strange lucidity this seems to bring, like disinfectant slapped on an open wound.
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