Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story
How a writer processes what has happened to her in both the present and past tense
When Joyce Carol Oates’s husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith, died in 2008, Oates’s friend Gail Godwin told her, “Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it.” Her suffering, documented beautifully and meticulously in A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, is to our benefit as a reader. Oates, a master literary craftsman and the author of more than 50 novels, shares how her husband falls suddenly ill, the ways she copes with her new life alone, and what she discovers about her husband’s past in the process, all in heart-rending prose.
Take this description of the hospital where her husband died: “It may be that actual tears have stained the tile floors or soaked into the carpets of such places. It may be that these tears can never be removed. And everywhere the odor of melancholy. That is the very odor of memory. Nowhere in a hospital can you walk without blundering into the memory pools of strangers.”
Read with an elegant clarity by Ellen Parker, Widow is as much about grief — her cataloguing of her collection of pills is particularly affecting, as is the fact that she leaves her husband’s voice on the answering machine for a year-and-a-half after his death — as it is about how Oates, as a writer, processes what has happened to her in both the present and past tense. Even as a widow, even in her saddest moments of her life, Joyce Carol Oates has to go on being Joyce Carol Oates.