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A Widow’s Story

July 25, 2012

I picked up A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates because someone told me that it might help me understand what my mother has been going through since last November, and because I have occasionally admired her short stories, like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  Knowing that the book was about the first year after her husband’s death, though, I didn’t start reading it until I was in the sunniest and most hopeful mood I ever reach, which is the week before and the week of our bi-annual trip to the beach in South Carolina.  I finished it on the porch of the beach house, and was happy to be done with it.

As expected, the author’s grief is hysterical and heart-breaking, and my interest in reading about it struck me as prurient.  It wasn’t until the second half that I found a few passages that rang true: “’bad’ news—if I were diagnosed with cancer, for instance—would be a relief since Ray would be spared knowing of it. But ‘good’ news that can’t be shared—this is painful.”

Much of the book, though, assumes a commonality that I think attempts to go too far: “The widow doesn’t want change. The widow wants the world—time—to have ended. As the widow’s life–she is certain—has ended.” While I’m sure this is occasionally true—for this author and for my mother—it’s the assertion that every widow feels exactly this way all the time that strikes me as a bit over the top, as if grief gives her the license to over-generalize.  And she knows better; she observes that “it’s a terrible thing to be devoured by one’s work—you must learn to leap free of it as one might leap free of a raging fire.”

Her conclusion, that her life is now “unpredictable because absurd” and that “if I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash” seems pretty slight in light of the 414 pages it takes her to get there. The point of the book and the title are misleading if this is simply the idiosyncratic story of one woman’s grief and the course it took.

Why do we tell stories?  I think one of the best reasons is to let others know that they’re not alone in facing hardships, and this book doesn’t do that.  From the particularity of what caused her husband’s illness to the endless details about her reactions to his notes for an unpublished novel, this book is not designed to offer any of the comfort of fellow-feeling to other widows, or to give their loved ones any more insight into what it’s like to become one.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2012 8:15 am

    Interesting–I haven’t read this particular book but did read Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking and found it comforting even though I am not a widow. But I think that’s more because I tend to frame events the way she does in the book. I wouldn’t want some sort of “I speak for all people in this class” book though.

    • Carol Schumacher permalink
      July 25, 2012 8:41 am

      EDJ3: Interesting that we posted comments about Didion’s book at about the same time. We were probably writing them simultaneously.

      • July 26, 2012 8:01 am

        I’ve had the Didion book on my list for the library for about a year. I guess it was unfortunate that I found a copy of this one first.

  2. JuneA** permalink
    July 25, 2012 8:31 am

    I have a difficult time with books of this type- I am the first to admit that expressing yourself through the written word will help, but these diaries of pain should be left unpublished. If there is a lesson that can be learned or a thought that can help ease someone else’s grief, that’s a very different matter. When it comes right down to it, we all grieve differently….and we grieve differently for different people.

    • July 26, 2012 8:02 am

      I thought it might at least be good for a misery loves company feeling, but no. As a diary of pain, it’s too particular in its detail.

  3. Carol Schumacher permalink
    July 25, 2012 8:39 am

    I haven’t read “A Widow’s Story,” but I think “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion tries to do something similar. There are, of course, a lot of these sorts of books. In some ways, I think they are written mostly for the author. It’s like needing to vomit. It’s excruciating as it happens, but you need to do it to get to the other side.

    For the rest of us, we can find some glimmer of insight, but really it is a personal story.

    Didion had one insight that I thought was interesting. She felt like her days of early widowhood were like a mental illness. (And she wrote about this quite eloquently.) I had a new understanding for the advice—given in all seriousness—in hospitals: “Don’t make any major decisions in the coming days.”

    • July 26, 2012 8:04 am

      Didion is such a good writer. Usually I prefer getting my insights in the form of fiction, but your analogy to vomiting may be apt. If that’s the case, then it’s like what I’ve always called “kleenex poetry”–you write it, you feel better, and then you should throw it away.

  4. freshhell permalink
    July 25, 2012 8:42 am

    I find grief to this extent much too depressing to read. Felt that way reading the Didion book that my father – a cancer survivor – gave me. I thought maybe he was trying to tell me something? But I think he just wanted to give me a good book. I finished it and wished I’d had a bottle of antidepressants or something. Stories that are cathartic to the author like this one often, in my experience, just off-loading those extreme emotions onto the reader who then has the burden of carrying them around. I have difficulty with this these days and usually avoid reading books that hint at so much awfulness.

    • July 26, 2012 8:07 am

      Exactly. Yes. What you say is why I read this book at the happiest point I could imagine, and then I was able to avoid carrying the emotions around afterwards. I literally put the book into a pocket of my suitcase and forgot about it until we got home.

  5. July 25, 2012 8:44 am

    I’m wondering how much of what bothers you is what is said about the first year of widowhood that you are applying to widowhood writ large? Having watched loved ones go through the loss, this rings true for the first months, at least – but I can understand why it would feel voyeuristic

    • July 26, 2012 8:11 am

      I’ve read that the first year is the worst, so wanted to see how I could flex my empathy muscles.

  6. July 25, 2012 8:47 am

    P.S. I usually find memoirs like this of interest – “Unquiet Mind” was terrific.

  7. July 25, 2012 9:07 am

    In my experience, the problem with “sharing” grief is that it’s a fundamentally individual and isolating experience. It’s one thing to share with and learn from fellow survivors of trauma or disease, and to find wisdom and comfort in that. But no matter how much you share your grief, you can’t restore what’s lost. As my wife says, “Death is too fucking long.”

    BTW, I also share your indignation (my word for it) at universalizing one’s experience and then taking on an annoying voice of authority about it. That drives me nuts. Reading these sentences– “The widow doesn’t want change. The widow wants the world—time—to have ended. As the widow’s life–she is certain—has ended.”– would have probably provoked me to hurl the book across the room. Probably not the effect she was going for.

    • July 26, 2012 8:12 am

      I’m not sure she knows what effect she was going for. But yes, the book just underlines what you say about grief being individual and isolating.

  8. July 25, 2012 3:49 pm

    I too got a copy of this to help me understand my mom’s grief (although now she is gone too) but I’ve put off reading it for some time. Your thoughts don’t want to make me pick it up. I found a lot to think about in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles her life after the death of her husband. Have you read that? I might be more what you are looking for.

    • July 26, 2012 8:14 am

      Maybe I will have to break down and buy a copy of the Didion book, after all these recommendations!

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