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This article was published 18/2/2011 (2469 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Widow's Story
By Joyce Carol Oates
HarperCollins, 416 pages, $32
Raymond J. Smith, longtime editor of the literary magazine Ontario Review, died on Feb. 18, 2008, at the age of 77.
His wife, the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates, has written a candid and heartfelt memoir about trying to understand and deal with her new role as widow. It is as gripping as the best of her novels.
Oates, eight years younger than Smith, met him in October 1960, when they were both graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They were engaged a month later and married in January 1961.
They maintained a close relationship for the next 47 years, never being apart for more than a day or two at a time. Even when they were apart, they spoke on the phone. They had no children.
They both taught English in Detroit before a 10-year stint at the University of Windsor that began in 1968. That's where Ray started his magazine — hence the name Ontario Review. In 1978, they moved to Princeton, N.J., and settled into a large house on two acres outside of town.
Ray, regarded by one friend as "good, wise, gentle and extraordinarily courteous," became an avid gardener, what Joyce calls "an editor of living things.... Like editing, gardening requires infinite patience; it requires an essential selflessness, and optimism."
One day in 2008, Ray has trouble breathing. Though he downplays the problem, Joyce talks him into letting her take him to the hospital. He is diagnosed as having an infection in one lung and it has led to pneumonia.
A few days later, the infection has spread to his other lung and, by the time Oates gets to his room, Ray is dead.
Oates runs the gamut of emotional experiences (from the first admittance to hospital, to The Call, to actually seeing him dead, to dealing with the hospital staff and with the people who have to be told, to wondering if she can carry on alone), experiences that are universal, yet described so well that it seems the author is articulating them for the first time.
So accurate are her explanations, the reader who has had similar experiences will nod and think, "Exactly! That is exactly what it is like!"
There is so much for a widow to do. So much legal work. So many friends to deal with. The stream of sympathy gifts. The people who mean well but are in some way hurtful. She can't sleep.
She contemplates suicide. She hates being alone, but when she's with people, she wants to be alone. She needs anti-depressants and sleeping pills, but she is afraid of getting hooked on drugs.
She goes back to work, hoping it will be a distraction. She will return to her writing-workshop classes at Princeton, meet her guest-lecture and visiting-writer commitments.
But it is not easy to adopt her Joyce Carol Oates persona when everything tells her she must be Mrs. Smith the widow.
Interwoven with the galvanizing account of her distress are many fascinating glimpses of her writer's life — associating with John Updike, Philip Roth and Richard Ford, for example.
Most astonishing is her output. Though she has taught at university her whole life, helped Ray with the magazine, gone running at least three times a week, and written reviews for countless periodicals, she has published 115 books, about half of them novels, the rest non-fiction and collections of short stories and poetry. And she writes her first drafts long-hand.
This amazing production has led some critics to see her as somehow unworthy, that she writes too much too quickly.
In this book, she touches upon what it's like to receive negative reviews, to be nominated for awards but never chosen (though she did win the National Book Award for them in 1970, and her 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys was an Oprah pick).
Ironically, Ray Smith (not to be confused with the Canadian novelist who wrote Lord Nelson Tavern) struggled with a novel for much of his life but never completed it. Rather surprisingly, he never read Joyce's fiction, and she didn't read his until after he died. Despite their closeness, they kept a part of themselves private.
Oates' memoir ranks with those of other writers on a similar topic; one thinks of John Bayley's three volumes about Iris Murdoch's demise, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking about John Gregory Dunne, and Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? about Harold Pinter.
And there is a happy ending. Oates tells us she did start to sleep naturally in August 2008, and she hints of meeting a new man at an academic gathering, much in the life-altering way she had met Ray 49 years earlier.
But that is another story.
Winnipeg author Dave Williamson wrote his first book review for the Free Press in January 1972, and the subject was Joyce Carol Oates's fifth novel, Wonderland.