24 March 2011

My Thoughts on Joyce Carol Oates', A Widow's Story: A Review

Title: A Widow's Story: A Memoir
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Ecco
Date: 2011
Genre: Memoir

432 pages.
Where I got it (Full Disclosure): From the publisher, through Net Galley
Challenges: None


I haven't read much by Joyce Carol Oates considering how much she has written.  I read one or two of her novels when I was much younger and I'm a big fan of her short story,  "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" I have been feeling disappointed by memoir as a genre lately, but the Times Book Review spoke very highly of Oates' new contribution, so I requested a galley.

The book begins on a normal day with Oates just returning from a speaking engagement. When she arrives, she finds that her husband has gotten ill while she was away.  It is incredibly pedestrian, and yet from the first pages her story compelled me.  Husband and wife fuss and decide that they won't wait to see their general practitioner, deciding instead to go to the emergency room, where Ray (Oates' husband of almost 50 years), is admitted with pneumonia.  Considering the title of the book, it is no spoiler to say that, only a few days later, Ray passes away.  And yet, reading those heart-wrenching chapters, I felt like I was reading a brilliantly crafted work of fiction.  I could turn the pages fast enough on my I-pad; I was rooting for Ray despite knowing the outcome. The suddenness of his passing was distressing and the portrayal of Oates throughout rang to me as heart-breakingly accurate.

After Ray's death, Oates explores what it means to be a widow and how she coped-with the help of friends and work and medications- in the months following her loss.  There are sad moments and funny moments, and the reader feels the surreality of the writer's current state.  Throughout the book, however, she writes with clarity and a competency that reminds us that she is a professional story teller.  She explores the form of the memoir, eventually coming to the realization that "all memoirs are journeys. investigations.  Some memoirs are pilgrimages."  She sees her journey as the latter. 

I felt like I was on the journey with her, and it seemed to be a journey in many senses.  Not only did Oates embark on the obvious journey of coming to terms with the death of her partner of many decades, it also seems to be a journey in which she merges her identity as Joyce Smith with her writer's persona-Joyce Carol Oates, or as she refers to her- JCO.   She claims midway through the book that she has "walled [her]self off from 'Joyce Carol Oates,'" and has also created "walls" between herself and Ray by keeping their professional identities separate from their identity as a married couple.  Through the book, she gets to know Ray better in crucial ways, and that is part of the journey as well.

What I liked best about the book was its readability.  Like I mentioned earlier, the reader knows that she is in the hands of a professional.  I also found the book honest - at times beautiful and at others baffling.  The author doesn't hide the moments in her relationship that some of us might find a bit strange (What? They didn't read each others' writing?). Overall, this might be one of the best memoirs I've read, and it makes me more than likely to pick up some more of Oates' fiction in the future. 

2 comments:

  1. Great review! I've loved Joyce Carol Oates for quite a while, since I randomly decided to buy one of her books from an actual bookshop, at full price (really rare for me!), and I've never been disappointed by one of her books. I've read an extract of her memoir and it seems really really sad but very real too... I can't wait to read the whole thing!

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  2. Laura- It was great. I read it over Spring Break and just thought it would be depressing (and it was), but it was such a great read.

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