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Joyce Carol Oates' Brave, Intimate Story Of 'A Widow'

"Though Ray has left me it is not so easy for me to leave him," Joyce Carol Oates writes in this brave, dark but slyly mordant memoir about her extreme distress in the months following the sudden death of her husband, longtime Ontario Review Editor Raymond Smith, from complications of pneumonia after 47 years of marriage.

Culled from journals and e-mails penned at her most distraught, Oates writes of feeling "wrong to have outlived Ray," "like a balloon from which air has leaked," "a ghost haunting her own house," at once posthumous and suicidal. She describes her tormented nocturnal life as "the Jersey Turnpike of insomnia" and cites Friedrich Nietzsche, John Crowe Ransom, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway and Anne Sexton in her recurring meditation on suicide as a consoling temptation.

You might think that Oates, the author of more than 115 books, the so-called "Wonder Woman of American Literature," would be in a better position to handle widowhood than someone with a less rich inner life. One of the more remarkable aspects of A Widow's Story is her willingness to reveal the real Joyce Smith, as she calls herself, in all her fragile vulnerability, as distinct from "Joyce Carol Oates," the literary "author-identification" and "quasi-public self" she always refers to in quotes.

Readers who know Oates only through her intense, often sexually violent fiction will recognize the heightened interiority and harrowing emotions but may be surprised at the writer's demure self-portrait. Oates, who married Smith when she was 22 and he was 30, three months after they met as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, comments, "Despite my reputation as a writer my personal life has been as measured and decorous as Laura Ashley wallpaper."

Theirs was an intimate bond with surprising gaps: Oates confesses that she kept her troubles to herself — "In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious" — and, more astonishing, her husband never read her fiction, an arrangement she questions in retrospect. (He did read and line-edit her reviews and essays.) Smith took care of practical matters involving finances and property, freeing Oates to immerse herself in her work. In the aftermath of his death, she also questions whether "I'd spent too much time in that other world — the world of my/the imagination — and not enough time with my husband."

A Widow's Story is more raw than Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, to which it will inevitably be compared. However, Oates' personal story has a happier ending. She finds solace in devoted friends, her teaching at Princeton University, taking over Smith's garden and her exploration of unknown aspects of her husband — including his one unfinished novel. Unmentioned is meeting Princeton neuroscientist Charles Gross, whom she married a year after Smith's death.

Although she characterizes herself as slow to anger — "Anger is a high C our voices can't reach" — the new widow is frequently annoyed at incessant death duties, furious at herself for failing to save Smith, irritated by the parade of Harry & David baskets with their inappropriate party food, irate at well-meaning but crude well-wishers and clueless doctors. But most of all, Oates rages at the dying of the light of her life in this unflinching, generous portrait of the terror of emptiness.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.