A wildly unhinged, deeply intimate look at the eminent author’s “derangement of Widowhood.”
Oates’s husband, Ontario Review co-founder Raymond J. Smith, a 78-year-old man in good health, was not supposed to die. In early 2008, he was admitted to the emergency room near their home in Princeton, N.J., and diagnosed with pneumonia. Then he developed complications from an bacterial infection and died of cardiac arrest on Feb. 18, 2008. The shock of losing her husband of 48 years nearly unraveled this author of countless novels, stories and essays, as well as a longtime professor of English at Princeton. In this surreal, nearly hallucinatory journey—she was referred to the Yellow Pages for a funeral home, soon became hooked on tranquilizers to overcome insomnia and often imagined a fiendish creature she calls a basilisk jeering at her—the author chronicles the painful first months of grief and emotional paralysis. Oates (Sourland, 2010, etc.) is a master at creating the interior-driven narrative, and fashions from her experience the character of the Widow—Mrs. Smith—distraught, vulnerable, helpless without the guidance of wise friends, susceptible to crippling regrets, prone to childish self-pity and even erupting in anger at a doctor who suggested that Ray just “gave up.” She also invents the character of “JCO,” the professor whom she had to “impersonate” at the university, the public self, the co-editor of the Ontario Review who had to inform their readers and writers that the literary review had to cease publication. Oates writes with gut-wrenching honesty and spares no one in ripping the illusions off the face of death—the relentless senders of “sympathy gift baskets” clotting her home like “party food,” her husband who “threw away both our lives with [his] carelessness contracting a cold” and the friends and acquaintances who mouthed wooden responses.
Oates continues to keep her readers guessing at her next thrilling effort.