Monday, April 11, 2011

J is for Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates on Widowhood

Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, both acclaimed writers who chose to chronicle their first year of widowhood, have written books which couldn't be more different.

Didion struck me as detached, almost clinical; Oates is awash with emotion; in fact, she's almost melodramatic.

Didion's book is short, concise; Oates' is overlong, almost 400 pages, and repetitious.

Didion holds her emotions in; Oates pulls the reader into hers.

I read Didion's book shortly after my husband died and took an instant dislike to the author although I'd often read and liked her work. She took pains to tell us about the call from the Times asking for an obituary, the private plane a friend offered to her when her daughter (who died soon after the book was finished) became ill in California, the house she and her husband leased from a famous movie director years ago. Snob, I thought. I didn't like her much more when she gave a reading in Houston and marched on stage lugging an enormous purse. Again, she seemed cold. But that's just me. Many reviewers have heaped praise on her book and it was adapted to the Broadway stage. So don't take my word; read it yourself.

Oates is not an author I'd been fond of; yet I found myself underlining paragraphs and thinking, "Yes, I felt that, too." No, I didn't consider suicide as a fallback after my husband died as Oates did. No, I didn't fear taking medication or worry that I might become addicted. But I did go back to work soon after my husband died and I'm sure on the outside, I looked fine as Oates did, but inside I was a mess; so was she. But she shows us her journey--how difficult it was to get the car title changed, how she avoided the checker at the grocery store who had been so friendly to her and her husband, how she reconstructed her husband's garden.

What Oates doesn't tell us is that within six months of her husband's death, she met someone new and remarried after she'd been widowed thirteen months. I found myself wondering if she was really "over" her grief, was the new man a "replacement," another fallback, or did she truly fall in love again.

Many reviewers faulted Oates for her frequent use of the third person, referring to "the widow" does this and "the widow" does that as if she were referring to widows in general. I didn't take it this way at all. I felt she was stepping outside to view herself objectively and often with humor.

What I learned from these two books is that like these two authors, all widows are different. We face our lives "after" in very different ways. Famous or ordinary, we're all individuals.


Michelle M. said... [Reply to comment]

here via A to Z challenge
Nice review. Sounds like 2 very different books about the same subject. I've never read Didion, but find Oates difficult to follow at times.

Jenny said... [Reply to comment]

I'm here via A to Z, also.

I'm not a widow, but my mother became one at a fairly young age (39). I read Joan's book a couple of years ago, and I was disappointed in it for the same reasons you mentioned.

Good luck with the rest of the challenge!

Widow in the Middle said... [Reply to comment]

I have not read the book by Oates yet but want to as soon as I can just because I read most books about widowhood. I loved Joan Didion's book and did not know her daughter died. I know in the book she didn't and I was so relieved about that. Anyway, I find it interesting that Oates was lucky enough to have met another mate so quickly. I won't fault anyone for remarrying when they do because I sure would jump at the chance at this point. Some of the books I've read by Oates have been pretty dark. But her book, "Missing Mom," which was about the death of a mother was one of the best fiction books dealing with grief that I've ever read.

Suzi Banks Baum said... [Reply to comment]

Oh Thelma, those writers are esteemed, but none so elegant as you are. The music that comes up so gracefully as I begin to read your posts- that effect is so dramatic. I love your posts.
I just put up K...did J last night. I am thoroughly enjoying the discipline of this daily posting.
Sending you love, Suzi

Leah said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for visiting my blog today and commenting. Glad you liked the post. Can't wait to tune into your blog tomorrow. By the way, I love Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. Short. Concise. But so rich.

Margaret Hall said... [Reply to comment]

Reading the thoughts of others on such a tender subject can bring us joy or can make us lay the book down...YOU, yes, YOU have so graciously shared your heart with us, and that is priceless to us who read your thoughts and words...Thank you for sharing...


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