Joyce Carol Oates’ intense, raw memoir of her husband’s unexpected death in 2008 provides a compelling window onto the writer’s working life by exposing the gap between “Joyce Carol Oates,” the masterful, prolific American novelist, and Joyce Smith, a wife of 48 years, suddenly widowed.
After Raymond Smith dies of a hospital-acquired staph infection, “the Widow” (as she refers to her new role) must learn to negotiate the world of “death duties”: a funeral home, the will, sympathy cards she can’t bear to read, a ringing telephone she can’t bear to answer and endless crates of Harry & David sympathy gift baskets, a “quantity of trash” that she must roll out to the curb, weeping in February’s icy rain. Retreating to “the nest”—the marriage bed remade into a safe place to grieve—the insomniac Widow tries to lose herself in work and in emails to longtime friends.
This generous memoir gives its readers intimate access to the most abject moments of sorrow, even as it explores the boundary between private and public selves. The solace of work, of inhabiting the role of “Joyce Carol Oates,” helps the Widow get through her days, though she struggles through the long dark nights, when even the cats avoid her. We learn that the Smiths retained a certain “privacy of the soul” in their marriage: Raymond never read Joyce’s many novels, and she never read his single unfinished one. The Widow’s struggle over whether or not to read this abandoned novel prompts uneasy reflections over how well she knew her husband, or how well we might know anyone we deeply love.
There is a breathless, antic quality to Oates’ prose here, an abundance of exclamation marks, dashes and repetitive phrases, stylistic markers that mirror the shock of unanticipated loss and its debilitating physical and psychological repercussions. This gives the memoir a kind of lightness and manic energy that make it a (paradoxically) pleasurable reading experience, and readers will come away grateful for having been granted such an intimate glimpse of a long and happy marriage.