Book Review: A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

By Cassandra Baim

A memoir about the shift to widowhood is as sad as it sounds. Joyce Carol Oates, a graduate of Syracuse University’s creative writing program, lost her husband of 47 years to pneumonia in February 2008. She documents her transition from happily married woman to widow in her 400-page memoir, A Widow’s Story.

Her story is split into five parts, beginning the night her husband enters the hospital and ending roughly six months later. Her attention to detail in a time of great distress is impressive; she never waivers in the specificity of her emotions. Published two years after her husband’s death, no conversations mentioned in her memoir are fictionalized. Everything is word-for-word accurate. Oates also includes a series of letters and emails she exchanged with close friends during the six-month period. Oates’ and her husband Raymond Smith’s iconic literary statuses drew much attention from peers, and many of Oates’ friends throughout the publishing industry helped her through this difficult time. The letters offer insight into how Oates dealt with the crisis at hand. She shares her story as a recent widow—her newfound agoraphobia and crippling insomnia—with emotional depth and detail. You know her words are real and raw.

A Widow’s Story is a wonderful, but also emotionally draining, read. The last page of the memoir is a casual photo of the two, a touching end to this heart-wrenching memoir. As young college students, few of us know about being married, much less losing a partner unexpectedly. While I cannot relate to her situation, her beautiful prose not only make it clear why she is a celebrated author, but also garner some of the most sympathetic feelings I’ve ever felt toward someone I’ve never met.