Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about her reaction to her husband’s death has become a subject of some controversy, most of it seeming to stem from Janet Maslin’s New York Times review, which suggests that Oates is cashing in on the current interest in grief memoirs and criticizes Oates for not revealing that she was engaged to marry again less than a year after her first husband’s death. I was alerted to this controversy by Dorothy shortly before I started reading Oates’s memoir for myself, and I found it hard to get Maslin’s thoughts out of my mind as I read, so I’m afraid this review might end up being part review of a book and part review of a review (apologies in advance).
Oates’s husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, died suddenly in February 2008 after a bout with pneumonia that led to a hospitalization and an infection contracted in the hospital. For Oates, the shock was crippling. She spent the next several months hoarding prescription medications and contemplating her own death. Every action was, by her account, a trial. In this memoir, she gives voice to that pain in what seems like a moment-by-moment account of her suffering
This memoir has been frequently compared to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I’ve read a couple of times (and seen the stage version). The comparison is understandable in that both are by noted authors of the same generation who lost their husbands in similarly sudden manners. Both books also focus on the first year of widowhood (although Oates focuses more tightly on the first six months, with the one-year anniversary appearing only as a one-sentence addendum—more on that later). The two books, however, are quite different in style and tone. Didion’s tone is more detached, almost clinical; whereas Oates’s writing is chaotic, full of dashes and interrupted thoughts. She does sometimes distance herself from her own grief, referring to herself as “the widow” and writing almost as if she were an anthropologist working on a case study, but for most of the book, Oates writes from the center of her pain. For my part, I liked Didion’s approach a little better, but I was often moved by Oates’s more immediate and visceral account. I do think it could have done with some cutting. There was a lot of repetition that might have been included for effect but that ended up feeling to me like filler. For the most part, though, it was compelling reading, and I felt much more like I was in the trenches with Oates than I did with Didion.
As moving as Oates’s memoir was, I did find at times that I had to work to actually like her. Her pain often comes off as an overindulgence in self-pity, and her complaints about her terror at being alone, unloved struck me as whiny. This speaks to my own bias and my firm belief that a woman can be happy on her own. On reflection, however, I can imagine that if I had married in my early 20s and never spent more than a night or two away from my husband for almost 50 years, the thought of being alone would terrify me. Perhaps, Oates herself knew intellectually that there are worse things than being alone, but this book is focused on her in-the-moment feelings, not on rational insight. (Even as a happily single woman in her late 30s, I have moments of fear at the thought of being alone in my old age, even as in my more rational moments I know I’d find ways to cope, just as I always have.)
Maslin makes much of Oates’s decision to leave her second marriage out of this memoir, noting that the time line covered extends to after the engagement. What she doesn’t make clear, however, is that the one-year anniversary is mentioned in a single sentence at the end of the book, and there are only a couple of passing mentions in earlier chapters of any date beyond that. The last full chapter actually ends on August 30, 2008, and alert readers have noted that there is a reference to her meeting her second husband in that chapter. It’s vague enough that one can understand a reader missing it, but it’s not exactly hidden. Personally, I can understand Oates’s decision to be a little coy here; otherwise, it could read as if she were saying “and then I met another lovely man and lived happily ever after.”
Maslin also talks about what she sees as Oates’s snarky attack on Didion’s memoir. Maslin writes: “Some widows, Ms. Oates suggests — ahem — might benefit from a good swift slap to break the spell of grief-mongering pathology.” I’ve read and reread the page Maslin references, and I simply cannot see where she gets the idea that the some widows refers to Didion. In that chapter, Oates is mulling over the drive to write about this kind of pain and about how a widow’s grief might look to others. The line about giving “the widow” a slap comes at the end of a paragraph that more likely is about Oates herself.
Other blatant misreadings include Maslin’s scoffing at how Oates and Smith called each other “honey.” Contrary to Maslin’s claim, Oates doesn’t mention their pet names as if they were an “exotic intimacy.” The salient point is that Oates couldn’t bring herself to call Smith by his given name—now isn’t that revealing? In fact, this early revelation points to one of the more interesting themes that runs throughout the memoir. For all their closeness, how well did Oates and her husband know each other? How much did they keep back? What has Oates lost that she didn’t even know she had? This idea comes to the forefront late in the book, when Oates finally reads the novel that Smith started and abandoned early in their marriage. The fact that early in the book Oates tosses in passing comments about how she and her husband distanced themselves from each other shows a discipline in her writing that may not be obvious at first glance.
It’s not unusual to hear professional critics complain that book bloggers are too subjective and lack insights and, in short, are dumbing down the reviewing world. I’m not going to stand up and say book bloggers are better than professional critics because I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Quality varies from reviewer to reviewer, from blog to blog, and from review to review. But Maslin’s review makes it pretty clear to me that print critics can be just as prone to bias and misreading as an unprofessional blogger may be. That’s doesn’t mean print reviews have no value, but it does mean that a single print review cannot—must not—be seen as the final verdict on a book, even as a single blog review should not be.
Addendum: I know some readers feel strongly that it’s best not to read others’ reviews before reading a book because it might taint your own reaction. For myself, though, I consider each review part of an ongoing conversation, and as such I sometimes like to see what others have said before I start reading or after I finish. I don’t necessarily seek out others’ views, but I don’t make an effort to avoid them either. What others say may affect my opinion, but it doesn’t necessarily taint it. There is a tension here, of course, which Amateur Reader explains beautifully in this post about knowledge vs. experience in the way we encounter art.