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A Widow's Story: A Memoir
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120 of 126 people found the following review helpful
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Joyce Carol Oates' heart-wrenching memoir "A Widow's Story" is about Raymond Smith, her husband's unexpected death at age 77 after forty-eight years together. Admitted with pneumonia he died within a week from a hospital acquired virulent infection. Part pilgrimage part widow's handbook she illuminates with powerful prose and acute perception the stunning reality of widowhood. The shock, the anguish, the grief, the disorientation, the denial and the guilt amid the nightmare of "death duties." She raises important questions about the legal and medical systems, the absurdities of commercialized forms of mourning and the painful impersonal vocabulary of illness and death. Her distress gives readers the opportunity to think ahead about the 'death duties" before the shock of loss.
At her husband's deathbed in the middle of the night she had to call a friend from the hospital, decide against doing an autopsy and gather his belongings. When, in her haze of confusion, it later dawned on her that her husband may have died a "wrongful death" it was too late, her husband had already been cremated.
Feeling widowhood is the punishment for having been a wife she experiences Rays' death as series of appointments, duties and bills - viewing the body, funeral arrangements, the cremation, buying an urn to bury his ashes, medical bills and insurance, his will and death certificate, automobile titles and insurance, house insurance, IRS documents, banks and other financial statements, passports, social security documents, birth and wedding certificates. All are needed to "probate" her husbands will.
Her last chapter titled "The Widow's Handbook" Joyce says: "Of the widow's countless death-duties there is just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband's death the widow should think 'I kept myself alive.' "
She found strength teaching her university students. She said for two lively and absorbing hours she was able to forget her radically altered life. She called it her life line - something she could do that has value. However her biggest solace was taking over her husband's garden and planting it in a new way. She used Ray's gardening gloves and implements and planted hardy perennials, perishable annuals, flowers, including wild flowers, not vegetables. Her resolution to discontinue her anti-depressive came while in the garden. Although she feared addiction she took pills for depression and insomnia and was proud when she discontinued them after six months.
Joyce's vivid depictions made me feel as if I too were in the depths of grief, guilt, depression and despair. She says that she's no longer convinced there's any value in grief and if wisdom springs from the experience it's a wisdom one might do without. I'm glad she didn't follow her own advice. Grieving is natural. This book would not exist if she hadn't allowed herself to grieve.
I appreciated her many glimmers of hope. Feeling a new intimacy with her husband while reading his unfinished novel "Black Mass." She said she knew his daily, domestic, social selves but not his imagination. It was like being inside his head. Something she didn't have while Ray was alive.
At the end of her book she talks about three small "sightings:" Feeling Rays' presence in the garden, sleeping without aide and finding lost earrings among the garbage. She wrote, "If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash."
My only criticism of Joyce's book is that it is too dark, long and repetitive. She's clearly in the process of finding a new normal. I hope for her sake that it's filled with more self forgiveness and acceptance, love, joy, peace and gratitude.
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158 of 178 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 6, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's impossible to adequately review this memoir without comparing it to its bestselling predecessor in both form and topic, "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion. The circumstances of both authors's widowhood are remarkably similar: Oates, a well-known and bestselling author, lost her husband of nearly 50 years, Raymond J. Smith, a respected writer and editor, unexpectedly when a hospital-acquired infection killed him; Didion, a well-known and highly successful author and screenwriter, lost her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Donne, also a well known and highly successful author, when he died of cardiac arrest at their dinner table. Both women had had close, work-together-at-home relationships with their husbands. Both writers use the memoir form as a way of exploring, expressing, and understanding their grief and the grief process. Oates's approach, however, unlike Didion's, is intensely focused on herself, her understandable grief, but also her feeling of helplessness and hysteria, her near-constant suicidal ideation, her rethinking of her marital relationship, and, finally, her way of finding help through her grief by taking over the everyday, ordinary household obligations that she had left to her husband for 48 years.

Initial disclaimer: I enjoy reading Oates's non-fiction essays and reviews, and occasionally her short stories, but am decidedly not a fan of her longer fiction, which I find bizarre, dark, and violent. I was drawn to this book, however, by the excerpt published several weeks ago in The New Yorker, and I still find the opening scene, which was included in that excerpt, to be stunning. In it, we learn much about Oates and her situation: she has come from visiting her husband at the hospital, where she continues to be baffled both by his treatment for pneumonia and the hospital atmosphere. She returns to her car to find that she has parked it askew, tires well over the white line in the street -- her upset and burgeoning hysteria resulted in an unfocused drive to the hospital and a botched parking job. She sees something under the windshield wiper, and, relieved to find that it isn't a parking ticket, she reads the scrawled note: "Learn to park stuppid bitch." Oates comments at this point that her "situation, however unhappy, despairing or fraught with anxiety, doesn't give her the right to overstep the boundaries of others," and we find as the memoir develops that this is a pattern of her grief: helpless and hapless, internalized, hysterical, while insistent on maintaining the privacy of her grief and on showing her best side to the world.

Throughout the memoir, Oates refers to herself primarily in the first person but also, frequently, in the third person as "the widow," as in this passage: "What the widow must remember: her husband's death did not happen to her but to her husband. I have no right to appropriate Ray's death." Oates searches for the "meaning" of grief, the reasons why she feels ill, has heart palpitations, has intractable insomnia. Her fears of being alone in the unusual, glass-walled house she and Raymond Smith shared, with its "ghosts" around every corner and outside every window, are only surpassed by her unease being away from the house, which she says she "yearns" for whenever she leaves. Oates's grief is internalized and compartmentalized when she leaves her home to continue teaching and lecturing, keeping commitments she had made months and years before. When she is at home alone, her grief is all-encompassing, sadness and regret mixed with rage, but also self-indulgent and, as she says in the memoir, bordering on insanity. She spends many of her wakeful dark hours counting out a collection of medications and sleeping aids to use in a suicide attempt, an attempt she researches but ultimately decides against. Oates says that her "survival" of the first year of widowhood is due to the fact that she is fortunate in her friends -- they guide and chauffeur her through the necessary post-mortem miasma of probate, etc., and are careful to call her, invite her to dinner, and encourage her in what is finally her salvation --learning to take ownership of the numerous aspects of her life that she had ceded to her husband over the years.

Didion's experience of grief was compounded by the serious, continuing, near-fatal illness of her only child, a recently-married daughter, who was hospitalized in a coma at the time of Donne's death. The focus on Quintana, a major character in the memoir, expands the memoir beyond Didion's own, beautifully expressed internal grief, and gives it an other-directed accessibility that Oates's memoir lacks. In the end, Oates is not an attractive widow. Her story is valuable and compelling in many ways, but her distracted, almost willful, helplessness and hysteria are wearying. Everyone has their own way of grieving, certainly. But it's hard to sympathize with someone as determinedly fragile as Oates. Indeed, much about the memoir feels off, and reads like a work designed to sell books.

Ultimately, this reader's inability to sympathize with Oates is confirmed, in a way: barely a year after Smith's death Oates remarried, to a professor colleague at Princeton.

Didion, we know, soldiered on, even enduring the death of her beloved daughter several months after the memoir was finished. Again, different people grieve differently, but Didion's memoir comes across as much more honest, devastated indeed, but also heroic. No one can predict if the reading public will find Oates's book as irresistible as Didion's, but to this reader, the comparison leaves Oates's memoir the lesser work of the two.
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2011
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One year and six weeks before her husband's death, Joyce and Raymond were lucky to walk away from an automobile accident that could just as easily have killed both of them. Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, publisher and editor Raymond Smith, would look upon each day after that accident as a gift, bonus time granted them on their time together. That would all change on February 18, 2008, when Oates would so suddenly be thrust into widowhood that she would be left reeling from the shock for months to come.

Joyce and Raymond Smith had been married for forty-seven years, and they expected to be together for a good many more, on the morning Joyce awoke to find her husband feeling poorly. Because she could see that his illness was more severe than he believed it to be, Oates convinced Smith to let her drive him to Princeton Medical Center. There he was admitted with pneumonia, but the couple expected that he would be treated and released in only a few days. Up until the early hours of February 18, when Oates received an urgent phone call from the hospital, that seemed to be exactly what would happen.

Technically, Raymond Smith did not die of pneumonia or its complications. He died, instead, from a secondary infection he picked up inside Princeton Medical Center, and his was a death for which Oates was completely unprepared. One minute she was feeling optimistic about her husband's homecoming; the next, she found herself trying to make it back to the hospital before he died.

Suddenly, her life seemed to lose all meaning. Gone was the man around whom she centered her world and, staggered by her grief, Oates lost all desire to go on alone. She could not sleep, had no desire to eat, and felt even her spirit fading away as the thought of suicide more and more appealed to her. What kept Oates going in those early months was her ability to lose herself in her "JCO" personae; she became a Joyce Carol Oates impersonator, an author with commitments that allowed her to travel from reading-to-reading across the country. She did not have to be Joyce Smith, widow, until she returned to her lonely New Jersey home.

A Widow's Story will remind many readers of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), in which Didion explored her own reaction to sudden widowhood. Like that memoir, A Widow's Story can, at times, be disturbing in its frankness about the effects of the despair and grief that follow the loss of a longtime spouse and companion. Most disturbing to me, personally, was the realization that even someone like Oates, with her vast network of friends, colleagues and well-wishers, essentially had to weather the storm on her own. Good intentions and simple kindnesses did little to relieve her of the pain that crushed both her spirit and her will to live.

Oates is a survivor now, as is Didion. What she tells us about her experience is not pretty, and it is not particularly inspirational. But it is real, and that, after all, is what Joyce Carol Oates is all about. This woman pulls no punches in her fiction, and she pulls no punches here.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 15, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
As a long-time reader of Joyce Carol Oates, I was fascinated to learn she'd written a memoir about the death of her husband. I found this book to be unlike anything else she's ever written. It is very raw, very open and extremely revealing.

The book is almost too revealing about her devastation and preoccupation with suicide. Still, I think for many widows this is exactly what they feel and think about after losing their spouses. Life narrows beyond belief for many who've gone through the death of a spouse or long-term partner and I found her obsessions and reactions to be authentic.

I also found it fascinating that the persona of Joyce Carol Oates, along with a few very close friends, is what pulled her through this time and gave her the focus that she so desperately needed. I guess like many others I never realized the Joyce Smith and Joyce Carol Oates were not the same, that JCO was her public, professional self. Oates draws this distinction between her private and public selves very clearly in the book and more than anything else she's written gives insight into both.

Though the story was very painful to read, I am so happy that I read A Widow's Story. I learned details about this amazing writer's life that I wouldn't have learned otherwise. I have always believed that Joyce Carol Oates is one of the bravest women writers out there, as she has had many harsh critics through the years. This book proves that she is, indeed, brave to show this side of herself to the world.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2011
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Joyce Carol Oates and her husband allowed each other an inviolate privacy of the imagination. From it, Oates drew bucket after bucket of fictional incest, obsession, crippling depression, rape and self-administered abortion. I have never been sure where she found so much darkness, but this memoir does offer up some fascinating possibilities.

Some aspects of grief are universal, and others are specific to the mourner. Most survivors seem to experience the second-guessing, the stubborn denial, the panic at having to reiterate and therefore relive what's happened, the power and delusion of magical thinking. But when Oates's husband died, she also experienced his loss as rejection, as an abandonment, as if by dying, he'd refused her and their life together. Anyone who has fallen into depression after being left by someone they love will recognize "the basilisk," the staring creature that recommends suicide as an alternative to the self-loathing engendered by abandonment. This seems to me a particular kind of hell for Ms. Oates, one that many readers might not understand. But Oates has never shied away from the ugly. In fact, she seems drawn to it. So her own most negative emotions and reactions are recorded as carefully as the negative aspects of any of her fictional characters. She lies, she evades. She is needy at times, and withdrawing at others. Her fury at being overwhelmed with flowers and food baskets isn't pretty, but it's truthful.

Along with a portrait of her grieving, she's offered a portrait of a very unique and successful marriage, one based on constant physical togetherness and complete intellectual privacy. I am fascinated by the fact that Raymond Smith did not read his wife's fiction, nor did she read his. Could she have delved as deeply into the dark places if she'd known her husband would read, judge, speculate on what she incorporated into her work? Did he respect her dark genius enough to leave her alone with it? I am not sure. I do know that for each of the last thirty-plus years, I have read one of her novels. My favorite works (Childwold, Marya, a Life, A Broadsmoor Romance, Bellefleur) were written in the first twenty years of her writing career, and I have always been intensely curious about the woman who wrote them. This memoir is a swim in a reservoir of anxiety, depression and fear, and it is not easy going. But it offers a fascinating portrait of her strangely dichotomous life; the placid ease of her marriage, the twisted brilliance of her writing.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 10, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Joyce Carol Oates's A Widow's Story is a memoir of the months that followed the sudden and shocking death of her husband, editor Ray Smith, of complications from pneumonia. It is a beautiful, amazing, and (seemingly) brutally honest account of the chaos into which this devastating loss throws her emotional and professional life, indeed her very "personalization." When such a loss occurs, one is broken into an experiencing self and an observing self: the one who feels, the other who watches and analyzes. The division between these two selves can make every action, every response feel inauthentic - but JCO scrupulously represents how both of these personalities experience the death. The resulting account evokes a rare poignance and sorrow, as the author mourns not only her missing husband - for 48 years an essential part of her life - but also her sense of security as an individual and her consequent preoccupation with suicide (and use of anti-depressant medication).

While Oates is a stunningly successful American novelist (with more than 50 novels to her credit and 30 short story collections, as she notes she has been called the "wonder woman" of the American literature), her professional success is no shield against the tsunami of her grief. In her memoir, she refers to her professional writing self in scare quotes, "Joyce Carol Oates," to indicate her alienation from that distant persona as she reels from this terrible blow. Her professional identity is at various times a refuge (she persists in teaching her courses and maintaining her lecture schedule), an annoyance, an "impersonation," and in her darkest moods a "mockery." But it is not her real life, which her husband's death has shown to her resides in human relationships. Only her friends provide her with true solace.

The book is long - 417 pages. But it is never dull. If a memoir of a person's death could be described by the word "lively," this would be it. Grief is necessarily repetitive, as we keep sinking into it (hence, the chapter called "Sinkholes"). And yet I found this record of the months after Ray's death difficult to put down, and I felt that by the end I had come to know its subject, the man to whom the book is dedicated. In that sense, it forms a fitting tribute to Ray Smith and the unusual (but also very familiar) love he shared with his wife of 48 years. Based on journals JCO kept at his death, this memoir includes emails, letters, excerpts from published and unpublished work. It moves forward and backward over time, reflecting on various moments in the past, while shifting smoothly into the present. A moment of hope appears near the end when Oates holds a dinner party and gains a glimpse of a future beyond her grief and loss. The lesson this memoir offers, as the final pages indicate, is survival, sometimes a harder thing than one would imagine. Love is the only way out.
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
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As I soldiered on through this book that seemed interminable (400 plus pages), I kept asking: why on earth did Ms. Oates write it? She cannot have needed the money. She says (p. 368) that this memoir is a pilgrimage and that she wrote it "to see what can be made of the phenomenon of 'grief' in the most exacting minute of ways, I [Oates] am no loner convinced that there is an inherent value in grief; or, if there is, if wisdom springs from the experience of terrile loss, it's a wisdom one might do without." (p. 407) I would agree with that conclusion. She also says that a memoir should be honest so I'll take her at her word. But it is grief piled on grief and a great deal of self-pity. Perhaps I would be more charitable if my family were not coming up on the one year anniversary of the death of my beloved thirty-one-year-old niece, which seems a lot more unfair than the death of a seventy-seven-year-old. On the other hand, I have never lost a spouse of 48 years.

As I read this book, I also kept thinking of the lines from W. H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts: "About suffering they were never wrong/The old masters." The old master in this instance is the painter Pieter Breughel . The painting is his magnificent portrayal of Icarus falling from the sky while the farmer hears a splash and a cry "But for him it was not an important failure." And the ship "sailed calmly on." James Agee said something similar in his near perfect autobiographical novel about the death of his father: A DEATH IN THE FAMILY.

Ms. Oates' husband Raymond Smith, an editor, a gardener, a lover of cats, was apparently loved by many individuals. A quotation from Gail Godwin keeps popping up in the narrative that is all over the place. "Suffer, Joyce, Ray was worth it." (Godwin has written a very moving, beautiful fictional account of the unexpected death of her partner in the short novel EVENINGS AT FIVE.) Mr. Smith went into the hospital in Princeton with pneumonia in February, 2008 and was dead within days from another infection. The circumstances are heartbreaking. Oates, thinking he was well on his way to recovery, was not at the hospital when he died. "My husband died among strangers."

Oates throws everything into this book: the couple's time in Detroit where they meet the black family that has just moved in, her husband's rocky relationship with his family, their time in Beaumont, Texas where Smith was a professor for a brief time, meetings with a plethora of writers. They seem to have known everybody who was anyone in the world of literature: John Updike, Philip Roth, Janette Turner Hospital, Gail Godwin, Edmund White, Richard Ford et al.

Ms. Oates cannot be comforted. She is upset if people mention the death of Mr. Smith; she is upset if they do not. Her two cats, one of which dies obviously trying to get back into the house after she has let him out one night, appear to blame her, she opines, for the death of Smith. After his death she receives a wealth of flowers and other gifts: a "'Deluxe Sympathy Gift Basket'--useless, unwanted, invariably heavy vases, pots, baskets, boxes, cartons to be carried in my [Oates'] aching arms, shoved, kicked skidding along the floor into the dining room where wilted petals fallen from the floral displays of previous days lie amid Styrofoam packing pellets, torn wrapping paper cellophane. . . There does seem to be an element of mockery in all this--sympathy." She particularly hates any package from Harry & David; the cards she receives she puts in a tote bag and does not read until months later in April and then reprints some of them in the book. She asks the question: is she supposed to acknowledge all these condolences? She does anti-depressants, sleeping pills and has an attack of shingles. Only other widows understand her.

According to this writer, Joyce Carol Oates is only the name that appears on the spines of books--anyone who knows Ms. Oates knows that she has written 50 novels or more, plus collections of short stories, nonfiction on boxing and other subjects. I believe she once quipped that she is the only person living who has read all her works--probably a true statement. She is Joyce Smith, the wife of Raymond Smith and now the widow of Raymond Smith. She often uses "the widow" in the third person and writes paragraphs in italics to make statements about what is going on with the widow's life now.

Although I have read only four or five of Ms. Oates' novels, I consider BLONDE one of a handful of books that I think are the best of anything written in modern American fiction so I came to A WIDOW'S STORY with no intent of bashing probably the most prolific of and one of the most respected of modern novelists whose name comes up time and again for the Nobel Prize. Furthermore, I am acquainted with grief, a least a little, since I saw most of my male friends die in the 1980's of AIDS and have read countless books, both fiction and fiction, on the subject of grief: Andrew Holleran's GRIEF, Paul Monette's LOVE ALONE: EIGHTEEN ELEGIES FOR ROG and BOROWED TIME: AN AIDS MEMOIR, Mark Doty's, HEAVEN'S COAST and DOG YEARS, Joan Didion's , THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Roger Rosenblatt's MAKING TOAST, John Bagley's ELEGY FOR IRIS. And certainly Emily Dickinson, whom Oates is fond of quoting, is not silent on the subject. I believe she said she could wade whole pools of grief.

Of course Oates writes impeccably, but her metaphors will make you suicidal--something she toys with herself: She is reminded of a "stricken bull fallen to its knees in the ring bleeding from myriad wounds in a stream of hot blood provoking a deranged crowd to roar." "I must have looked like a scarecrow dragged along a rutted road behind a pickup truck." She is a "skeleton rattling in a loose gunny sack." And finally she is the "mad old Lear, after Cordelia has died."

Ms. Oates ends her memoir with an entry dated August 30, 2008. She remarried in March, 2009. This volume would have been better by far if she had told the reader how she got from suffocating grief to a whole new life. Perhaps that will be the subject of another book.
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39 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
As a recent widow--I have been reading widely on grief loss and widowhood...I went from disbelief, dismay, and horror as I read this work, not because of her personal voyage, but because of the brutal and unkind treatment of "friends" and her late husband. Joyce Oates reveals herself as a painfully selfish and shallow person, who was sheltered from life by a husband whose intimate and private secrets she now chooses to reveal in this memoir. It seems that her sorrow is driven more by the fact that her shelter from the world is gone and that her household routine has changed, than the absence of her husband. Her unkindness to those reaching out to help her, her continuous name dropping of academic and literary folks illuminates her one-dimensional persona--Joyce the writer. Since she is a writer of fiction, I do wonder about some of heightened drama as well as the glaring omission of her rapid remarriage. She is now the third wife of someone she met six months after her husbands death--and married six months later. Her current husband should hope he outlives her, so as not to be "Oatesmeal" for her "book mill".
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Joyce Carol Oates is a writer's writer. What could be a grieving exercise for anyone else, using the English language to make sense of the loss of a partner of a half-century, becomes a mesmerizing memoir of sadness and survival. The reader should be aware that "A Widow's Story" has a stream of consciousness style with incomplete brief sentences, long run-on sentences and just phrases. Ms. Oates moves back and forth in time and place, trying to make sense of the sudden loss of her husband. This is a very personal tale that is made public : coping with the old memories, with the new routines, and with well-intended acquaintances who say annoying things for fear of saying nothing. Occasionally melodramatic, this memoir was, for me, a dazzling page-turner in spite of its topic of death.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
If you are a widow or someone else who has suffered a loss and are seeking comfort, run, run as fast as you can, away from this book. There is little, if any, comfort to be found here.

Joyce Smith, known to most of us as Joyce Carol Oates, had been married to her husband for 47 years when he died after a short illness. She was, of course, devastated, and I truly am sorry for her sorrow. Still, I really didn't like this book.

Initially, I was annoyed by all the unnecessary exclamation points and italics, but those are minor annoyances, ones I can easily overlook. What bothered me more was the combination of extreme self-pity, condescension, and arrogance.

She includes italicized third-person guidelines as The Widow, almost a primer of widowhood. I think that her experiences are not every widow's experiences, and it is presumptuous to write as if they are; it is disconcerting to read.

There is much too much detail. I really am not interested in every sleeping pill she took, every email she sent or received, every thought of suicide, the extreme minutiae of her life. She was battling depression, certainly understandable, but did she have to work so hard at dragging me into her depression?

Concerned friends gave her endless support, but others sent her baskets of fruit, flowers and plants, things to express their sympathy, and she resented these as she dragged them to the garbage unopened. She resented well-meaning acquaintances who tried to express condolences when she didn't want to hear them. She resented people who didn't know the right thing to say so said the wrong thing, even though it seems very likely, without explicit examples, that she did the same thing before she became a widow.

When meeting with friends who were divorced, who had been betrayed by their husbands, she writes:

"Where there is betrayal, there can be anger, rage. I am thinking with envy how much healthier, how much more exhilarating, such emotions would be, than the heavyheartedness of grief like a sodden overcoat the widow must wear."

Excuse me? She presumes to feel that her pain is greater, and that there would be exhilaration if she had been betrayed rather than widowed?

"Not one person in this room would want to trade places with you: widow."


"Trying to cheer yourself up when the only significant fact of your life is, you are alone. You are a widow and you are alone....You are a failure, you are an unloved woman no longer young, you are worthless, you are trash. And you are ridiculous...."

At one point, JCO is thinking of having a T-shirt imprinted with:


I wanted the subject changed long before the book ended. The book was not badly written but did not appeal to me. Perhaps it will to other readers.

I was given an advance copy of this book by the publisher, and the quotes may have changed in the published edition.
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