Everyone who has ever lost a loved one has (his or) her own story of mourning. In this way, A Widow’s Story is, in a word, perfect. And if JCO”s purpose is, as she states late in the book, “…to see what can be made of the phenomenon of “grief” in the most exactingly minute of ways…, ” she’s succeeded. From the perspective; however, of the average reader, I confess (rather guiltily) that what I like about the book, which covers primarily the period from February to August of 2008, barely exceeds what I dislike. This memoir, on the minutiae of mourning (I thought, while on a run, only midbook), reminds me most of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in that it includes many references to famous writers, excerpts from their work, quotes, and other applicable information about literature, especially on topics such as suicide, death, and grief. On the bright side, one could hold a college seminar on various aspects of the story: excellent examples of alliteration, “strange sourceless sunshine,” “Transparent, translucent, dying dead,” (or, more commonly, in the format of two words separated by a comma) “vivid, visceral,” “rewinding, replaying,” and “encouraging, enthusiastic;” superb similes, “thoughts rush through my head like deranged hornets,” “wilted petals are strewn underfoot like tiny bruised faces,” “the aloneness weighs upon me like something leaden,” and quotables such as, “…we are determined to keep those alive whom we love…,” “You would not wish to blunder into another’s sorrow. You will have all that you can do to resist your own,” and “The soil of the earth is steeped in the blood of those who have died for their religious beliefs as by those who have been killed by those who believe.” The frank talk about depression, suicide, insomnia and prescription meds used to treat related conditions is also excellent.
On the other hand, the memoir contains nearly ninety often short chapters filled with topics ranging from the memorable to the mundane: an annoying “sulky, sullen” nurse, the circumstances of her husband’s brief illness and unexpected death, memory pools, picking up pills, an encounter with a dastardly dad, emails Oates sent, the content of condolence cards, the Yellow Pages person, cat pee, dreams, the answering machine message, remembrances of JCO’s life with Ray, and her agonizing over The Manuscript.
At about the third point of the story, JCO states, “As these e-mail message excerpts suggest, the memoir is a memoir of loss and grief but also perhaps more significantly a memoir of friendship.” I wonder whether those supposed friends would feel the same after recognizing the (their?) items that she describes as “useless, unwanted” and then lists at length in the Sympathy Gift Basket chapter. That she throws persons (acquaintances, friends, medical community members, colleagues) under the bus (some deserving, others, I think, not) by including their often inadvertently insensitive words (likely agonized over) of sympathy and/or empathy said with the best intention simply supports that which many of us suspect, whatever words we choose to convey our condolences to the bereaved will likely turn out to be inadequate, inappropriate. Mention the deceased in the mourner’s presence, he or she will prefer you hadn’t; don’t, that you had. The fact that she chooses to include this information about a plethora of persons, including: the Sympathy Gift Basket senders, Dr. H___, C___, the rude Republican hostess, S, the “wearing pink” lady, the “cruel talk”[ing] Princeton friend(s), “…friends [who] did not speak of Ray at all,” “a Princeton acquaintance,” “a writer-friend now living in Philadelphia,” the persistent artist (and shark), Dr. P___, Dr. M___, and (possibly) a DMV clerk, goes against her “memoir of friendship” contention. Additionally, her story is, at times, repetitive (e.g., the books from the hospital, the clothes, the fruit blend drinks, the phone message, the “air leaking from a balloon” simile, Ray taking home Reynard, and the (rhymes with witch) note) as well as overly long. The content of chapters 80 and 81 appears to show that JCO is anti-Catholic. Lastly, although it’s Ms. Oates’ prerogative to reveal certain personal information (the sister, Black Mass) about her husband, some of which he seemed reluctant to share, reading it may elicit (as it did in me) feelings similar to those experienced by accident rubberneckers. In summary, A Widow’s Story, ranging from marvelous to mundane, is a mixed bag on bereavement. Better: The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso, Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt, and A Three Dog Life by Abigail Adams.
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