I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’s new memoir about her husband’s death, A Widow’s Story and liked it very much; it turns out the New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin most emphatically did not. Maslin’s review strikes me as odd; is it helpful at all in one’s review to say things like this?
Although the book flashes back to various stages of the marriage, and to the remarkably treacly addresses of their homes in various cities (their last street address was 9 Honey Brook Drive), it offers few glimpses of how they actually got along.
The tone of the entire thing seems strangely angry. Who cares if their street names were on the sweet side? But one of Maslin’s criticisms is much harder to dismiss: Oates was engaged to be married 11 months after her husband died, and Maslin wonders why she did not mention this in her book. I hadn’t known about the engagement and marriage until I read the review. Oates presents herself one year after her husband’s death as beginning to recover and to return to a more normal life, but as forever scarred by her loss. There is no evidence in the book that another romance is afoot.
I’m not sure what to think about this. On the one hand, I strongly believe that art is what matters most, and if Oates needed to exclude some information in order to make her book a better work of art, then that’s what she should do. I also strongly believe that memoirs are always shaped and molded to meet the writer’s needs; they always have omissions and elisions, and they are very carefully crafted. I suppose it’s never quite as simple as this, but I always want to argue that a writer’s first duty is to the writing, and everything and everybody else will just have to deal with it.
On the other hand, part of what was so powerful to me about Oates’s memoir is that it seemed so very real. I believed every word of it. I know I sound contradictory — if it’s so carefully crafted, then how can it be real? It’s clearly all artifice! — and yet I also believe that artifice can help express truth. And I felt as I read that I was getting a true picture of what suffering is like. I’m now imagining all widows I know as having experienced something like what Oates experienced, and I feel horrible for them.
But if Oates wasn’t telling the whole story about her emotional experience — leaving out a new engagement is kind of a big deal — then what am I left with?
Or, perhaps, everything she wrote about her suffering is absolutely as true as she could make it, and that suffering isn’t diminished by the fact that towards the end of her story when she is beginning to show signs of recovery she doesn’t tell us quite how much that recovery actually meant.
I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would have felt if she had written about her engagement in the book, but I do think it would have made the book less unified and less powerful. It comes down to my purpose in reading, I suppose. The part of me that reads for aesthetic pleasure has no problem with the fact that Oates omitted something major from her memoir. The part of me that reads for emotional truth isn’t quite as sure.