|Joyce Carol Oates with husband #2 at their wedding.
The more salient criticism many — not just Janet Maslin — have of the Joyce Carol Oates life/memoir is that this book, about her first year after losing her first husband, "fails to mention" that she was engaged to her second husband by month 11. Everyone rankled by this omission seems to think Oates' choice deliberate and disingenuous, inconsistent with their expectation (NOT the author's assertion) that this is an honest (and perhaps even complete?) account of her grief and loss.
One needn't be a remarried widow like myself to know that grief and great happiness — and that activity we so vaguely, distantly call "moving on" — can exist in one life at the same time. Feelings of great sorrow over loss can
exist at the same time as we become attached to another mate, we can
make large decisions while we are suffering (or even impaired). The surreality and vividness of living between and among two extremes is indeed one of the hallmarks of grief, as noted by commenters as revered as C.S. Lewis.
In fact, it can be hard to tell two stories that are so vastly different at once: if I were writing a memoir about grief, I might not want to challenge myself by mixing in a tale of new love.
Yes, it would be a wonderful book if you did both. Oates would not have been the first. Nonetheless she has chosen not to write that book, and that is her choice as a memoirist.
But it's relevant to her grief,
they say. How
can you talk about one without talking of the other?
Because it's not
relevant. New love doesn't eliminate feelings of grief and loss any more than moving in with the second husband deletes the experience of 28 years with the first one. They continue to exist side by side: during dating, during courtship, during the wedding, and into the next marriage.
So: I don't think leaving out "a whole husband" is a major omission.
I will anger many widowed people when I say that experience isn't even all that rare, and that her second husband is unexceptional (this is a mature guy), certainly not a freak of nature to tolerate his wife's living with an emotional range.
For chrissake, she's a writer
. You think being a widow is going to make her deeper or more dramatic?
Secondly, she may have chosen to leave out her engagement (and to be fair, which Maslin isn't, she does mention it, just not in as much details as these complaining readers would like) because she knew she'd be judged. Yes, writing a memoir does open up your life to the public, but there is a special brand of criticism that is levied toward widows who remarry (or sometimes even date) within the first year. Even widowed people send the nasty, despite all our talk that "a year means nothing" and "grief is not a disease."
Third, I can tell you, as a remarried widow, that there is a particular form of envy that exists among women in middle age when they are confronted with someone who's had not just one, but two
happy marriages. This population is dominated by divorce, with a large margin of unhappy settling; we've all heard about the huge percentage of married couples who rarely or never consummate their love any more.
These women — let's assume the huge group is more than half of ever-married women between 40 and 65 — assume I had a fairy tale first marriage because, oh, he died.
(A divorcee once told me my husband's imminent expiration via cancer was "beautiful and romantic.") And they assume I had some sort of edge in finding the second one, too, that I didn't need
to marry again (because we all know all widows are rich), and they sense that I entered the dating scene without the huge chip of rejection and divorce on my shoulder, the way they or their friends did.
Even the ones with relatively happy marriages seem to all wonder if life would be just a little better if they could "trade in" too. It was the Moms at the playground who wanted to hear what it was like to date.
These women (and probably some men, too) can see that my husband and I have a fresher relationship than they do. They can guess that I still have sex with my husband, as they remember what their first years together were like.
You may think I'm making this up, but I'm sure others will verify the slanted eyes, the pursed lips, and the quiet exclamations of "you found another one?" (Most of my friends
were genuinely happy… but there was a certain kind of woman, ten years older, who was upset to not be able to feel sad for me any more — and more upset to be "bested" by me.)
I would never have expected to meet this envy, but I smell a bit of it in Maslin's expectation and her particular pointed snipe (as quoted yesterday). In my life, it was hard to respect people who felt this strongly about *my* life (is it my fault that my smile is a poke in your side?) but I was still affected when they lashed out.
As for whether Oates is cashing in on her loss, copying the success of her friend Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking
…. I think it's in extremely poor taste to charge milking it when someone has had to live through the loss. It's not exploitation if the ambulance you're chasing has your own loved one in it.
Joyce Carol Oates, who has published more than 60 books already, deserves to write her book the way she wants to, and she deserves a wonderful marriage in Chapter Two of her life.
Mazel tov, hon.
(And yes, now I will read the blinkin' book. Sheesh!).