Even mourning has its critics. After combing through recently-widowed Joyce Carol Oates's "A Widow's Story," The New York Times' Janet Maslin has some choice words: the book, she says, is less a heartrending story of loss than a memoir that "willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market that has thus far been dominated by Joan Didion's 'Year of Magical Thinking.'"
Some of the reasons for Maslin's impressive disdain are below:
It's a Lie
An omission Maslin can't overlook: that the widowed Oates neglects to mention that she was engaged 11 months after her husband, Rajmond J. Smith, died. Maslin argues that while "would begrudge [Oates] this respite from the anguish, ... it is less fair for 'A Widow's Story' to dissemble while masquerading as a work of raw courage and honesty." Considering the book's "long and rambling" length, Maslin says the mourning writer "could have found time to mention a new spouse."
Oates Makes This a Widow's War
Maslin, who calls Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking "more painful and extreme" than Oates's Widow's Story, also finds Oates's effort flabby and far less detailed than Didion's. Although Maslin gives Oates grudging credit for creating a book with more warmth than Didion, it's not enough to rescue Oates from Maslin's ire for picking a fight over who grieves best. "Ms. Oates, who had two pet cats with Mr. Smith, shows her own sharp claws when alluding to Ms. Didion's book as an exercise in narcissism and vanity. Some widows, Ms. Oates suggests--ahem--might benefit from a good swift slap to break the spell of grief-mongering pathology," she says.
Grief Without Depth
Oates is a writer, and for this reason alone, Maslin expects more than "threadbare metaphysics" such as the question: "Is the self the physical body, or is it the body of the repository self?" Maslin says Oates tries to make up for the lack of "depth and insight" with a "frantic energy."
Where's the Love?
Considering that the
book is about loss, Maslin expected a bit more backstory about the late
Raymond J. Smith and the 47 years he spent married to Oates. On this, as
on so many other levels, Maslin says a "A Widow's Story" leans on
colorless platitudes and says "it offers few glimpses of how they
actually got along."
There Should Be More
Maslin seems to find the lack of substance particularly inexcusable in Oates's case: "Even before she was felled by her husband's death, she had scheduled a lecture entitled: 'The Writer's (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection and Inspiration.' Surely she had a head start when it came to writing about pain," she notes.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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