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A Widow's Story: A Memoir    by Joyce Carol Oates order for
Widow's Story
by Joyce Carol Oates
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Ecco, 2011 (2011)
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* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

A Widow's Story was written by Joyce Carol Oates after her husband, Raymond Smith, died suddenly and unexpectedly after a short hospitalization. They had been married for forty-eight years, getting married after a courtship of three months, and they remained extremely close throughout their life together. She was eight years younger than Ray and never was seriously involved with anyone else. These facts are referenced frequently during the course of this memoir, as she struggles to survive her new status as widow and thinks back over their married life.

We learn that Ray hated to go to the doctor, and he always drove the car when they went out, so when he allows her to take him to the emergency room, she knows that he is seriously ill. Diagnosed with pneumonia, he becomes an inpatient, surprising both of them, but pneumonia is treatable, after all, so Joyce is not too worried. He seems to feel better after beginning treatment, and they both hope that he'll be able to come home soon, but the days pass and he doesn't. After about a week, they spend a happy Sunday together in his room, reading, talking, making plans, and she goes home to sleep deeply for the first time during his hospitalization. When the phone rings in the middle of the night, she is awakened to the almost incomprehensible question as to whether she wants extraordinary measures to be taken in the event that her husband's heart stops. She is shocked, says of course, and races to the hospital after being assured that he is still alive. But she arrives too late and he has died.

Oates refers to herself as Joyce Carol Smith or Mrs. Smith over and over as she begins to tell about her experience. She also intersperses the widow while referring to herself, which has the effect of making her widowhood a step removed from herself as a person. Indeed she constantly attempts to separate her literary persona of Joyce Carol Oates from herself as a person. This strikes me as odd, though, when most of her quoted e-mail is sent to other well-known literary figures or just famous people who one might imagine would not be the bosom buddies of a simple Mrs. Smith. This is not to say at all, though, that I was not tremendously moved by her suffering. Having written all of those wonderful novels which draw the reader into the story and make the characters as real as your next door neighbor, she retained that ability to write well in spite of her pain. We are drawn into this story in the same way, even though, unfortunately, this story really happened.

This cannot have been an easy book to write, although it might have been therapeutic to put all of the events surrounding her husband's death and her slow, agonizing journey through her grief down on paper. Sharing your grief is necessary as part of the mourning process that leads to healing. However, this is also certainly not an easy book to read. The book inspires compassion not only for this particular widow, but also for all wives and husbands whose spouses die. More to the point, it made this reader fear for her own loss should her husband die first. Death, while we all experience it, is never expected and for the happily married, the loss is almost unbearable. A Widow's Story is a moving, extremely personal account of Joyce Carol Oates' attempt to come to terms with her new status and to make sense for herself and others of the death of a beloved spouse.

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