Let me preface this book review by saying that I don't ordinarily read very much non-fiction anymore & that I had never read a Joyce Carol Oates book before. I was curious, and I wanted to experience how the well-known Oates writes. So I requested, and was lucky enough to receive, her memoir A Widow's Story, which will be released March 2011.
My feelings towards this book are ambivalent.
I can see a lot of great things in it and about it, but I didn't really enjoy reading it.
The memoir details what the author went through and experienced just before, during and after her husband died.
The first thing I would say about this memoir, is that you immediately notice that Oates writes well, and is very intelligent.
It's clear that Oates is a literary person, both due to the way that she writes, as well as the references that she makes. She quotes and alludes to people and concepts that make it obviuos Oates has spent a lot of time in the world of academia. It's a little intimidating, but it also makes you feel good about your own seeming intelligence - the way she so blithely discusses the people/concepts/etc., it somehow seems implied that she thinks you will know who/what she is talking about - particularly when you actually do know who/what she's referencing.
The second thing I would say about this memoir - far too much use of stream-of-consciousness (for my tastes).
I can understand the use for stream-of-consciousness writing/rambling. Really. I have read it in great works of literature; I have used it myself, both in personal essays, and works of fiction. I understand that sometimes, a writer has to use it.
I can also understand why Oates uses it so consistently in her memoir. Suddenly, her brain is moving a mile a minute, repetitively - she's not thinking in complete sentences. Often, her brain may not even be coherently registering a complete thought, let alone think in complete sentences. It's all fragments and confusion - and stream-of-consciousness perfectly portrays that.
Just as it is difficult to live in a state where you're constantly overwhelmed with thoughts that are vague, unclear, and half-stated, however, it is also difficult for me to READ something that is written in such a manner, if it occurs for more than a few paragraphs. Oates used it a lot in the galley which I received, and after a few chapters utilizing it, my attention span began to wane. Dramatically.
The memoir also necessarily repeats - usually stated in slightly different ways, after awhile, it was glaringly obvious that Oates was repeating the same material. This means, of course, that she was also GOING THROUGH the same things numerous times - which is a true-to-life sentiment. It also means, however, that much of the memoir, if you're not interested in reading repetition, feels unnecessary.
The concept of the memoir is interesting, and I feel that if you like non-fiction, this book is probably something that you should check out. If you're generally a strict fiction fan, however, avoid this book, as it will probably not hold your interest for very long.
I will finish by talking about my least favorite aspect of this book - the omniscient writing.
Oates wrote a lot of passages that began with something along the lines of: "To the widow...," "The widow feels...," "The widow thinks..."
I guess this was so that widows reading the novel will feel like they're not alone.
To me, however, it felt pompous.
I mean, isn't every widowing experience going to be different? I felt like some of the things Oates claims "the widow" goes through were a bit specific.
Her book is entitled A Widow's Story - meaning, what SHE, specifically went through. As she's only one widow, it just didn't sit well with me, that she decided to be the spokesperson for all widows.
For those who have read Oates' work before - is her fiction different from her non-fiction? If I didn't like this memoir, is it unlikely that I will like any of her work, or was my dislike probably with regards to this book in particular? (I have a BURNING DESIRE to know the answer - it is as if my pants are on fire, and your answer is the bucket of water, poised to put that fire out - so please, be my fireman/firewoman, and toss some water/answers on me!)
A Widow's Story goes on sale March, 2011.