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While Joan Didion's THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING is likely to remain the touchstone for contemporary books about a widow's grief, Anne Roiphe's new memoir is a painfully honest and deeply affecting companion to Didion's work.
In December 2005, Herman Roiphe ("H.," as she refers to him throughout the memoir), a well-known New York psychoanalyst, her husband of 39 years and 12 years her senior, died suddenly. Now Anne must begin her life again as a widow at the age of 69. "Grief is in two parts," she writes. "The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life. This book is about the second. Although the division between the two parts is not a line, a wall or a chasm." With that candid insight, Roiphe launches her account of the 18 months or so that followed her husband's death.
What's striking about Roiphe's situation, especially for such a highly educated, sophisticated woman, is how ill-equipped she seems to be to deal with some of the daily reality of it. Like many widows, she's mystified when it comes to financial matters ("This is his job. But he is not here and now I will do it, badly, but I will do it. Resentfully I will do it."). But she's equally at sea trying to perform even the most mundane of tasks, like fitting her key into the door of her apartment, which she always had left to her husband, or deciding which subway to take in a city where she's lived all her life. It's as if the loss of H. has rendered her disabled in some mysterious fashion.
Granted, some of the challenges Roiphe must confront are hardly the ordinary stuff of widowhood. Claiming that she's forbidden to provide details, she's left to clean up a lawsuit "for a considerable amount of money stemming from something in my husband's past." And she must deal with the blackly comic demand of her husband's ex-wife for an entire month's alimony ("the last drop of honey from the pot") for the month in which he died.
Thanks to a personal ad placed by her daughters in The New York Review of Books, and her own foray unto Match.com, Roiphe doesn't lack for male companionship (the way that e-mail has transformed dating rituals, even for senior citizens, is one of the subtexts of Roiphe's story). From the self-absorbed to the desperate, she chronicles her experiences with these men, even describing with refreshing honesty her sexual encounter with an attorney named M. The most bizarre of them (and the only one to which she does not attach an initial, a style borrowed from psychoanalytic writings) is a man from Albany, New York, who bombards her with email filled with increasingly virulent, even paranoid, right-wing propaganda. Although the two never meet, she seems oddly tempted by the notion of a relationship with him. It's puzzling that Roiphe, a passionate feminist, would have tolerated this onslaught of messages so at odds with her core beliefs for so long.
As befits an author of 15 books of fiction and nonfiction, Roiphe's voice is rich with nuance. At times she's concise and epigrammatic: "It is not a sign of normal life when the takeout deliverymen become fond of you or your tips." "If only there were a camp for us like the camps for the overweight kids advertised on the back of the New York Times Magazine." And yet she's equally capable of expressions of arresting beauty and poignancy: "Think of grief as a river that finally runs into the ocean where it is absorbed but not dissolved, pebbles, moss, fish, twigs from the smallest upland stream run with it and finally float in the salt sea from which life emerged."
By the end of her journey, Roiphe has emerged a different, stronger person. She has enrolled in a class in ancient history in the land of Israel, drawn closer to her daughters, and reconciled herself to the notion that she may never have another intimate relationship with a man. And while there are moments when she fleetingly contemplates leaping from her apartment, like the characters in John Irving's novel THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, she leaves no doubt that she'll "keep passing the open windows."
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg