To many readers, authors are highly esteemed and untouchable. But, in reality, they are just regular people who experience similar situations as does everyone else—the joys of marriage, the fears of illness, and, eventually, the finality of death. While their writing cannot shield them from life’s tribulations, it can help make sense of the most searing of struggles. When writers decide to make their private grief public, the books they produce detail universal losses.
Married to other people at the time of their first encounter, renowned playwright Harold Pinter and well-known biographer and historian Antonia Fraser embarked on a relationship that spanned 33 years. Drawing on her diaries, Fraser recounts their partnership in her lively and touching Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter (Anchor: Random. 2011. ISBN 9780307475572. pap. $16). She vividly portrays their loving life together, their work, and the privileged literary social circles they inhabited. In December 2005, when Pinter had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he lost his battle with cancer. Fraser’s compelling memoir ends on this heartbreaking note, making readers wonder how she will adjust to her life without him.
After a hospital visit to see their adopted daughter, Quintana, who was being treated for septic shock, married writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne arrived home to have a quiet dinner. After finishing one cocktail, Dunne suddenly collapsed, having suffered a fatal heart attack. In her haunting The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage: Random. 2007. ISBN 9781400078431. pap. $14.95), Didion relates her yearlong exploration of how grief feels, her struggle to find information about her daughter’s illness, her understanding of the intense love that one has for a child and a husband, and her battle to overcome her extreme sense of loss. During this time, she also had to cope with another major tragedy that affected her daughter.
After the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond Smith, from a secondary infection caught while he was in the hospital, Joyce Carol Oates experienced a tumultuous year of mourning and soul-searching. In her evocative A Widow’s Story: A Memoir (Ecco: HarperCollins. 2012. ISBN 9780062020505. pap. $14.99), the author acutely and poignantly explores this sorrowful period in her life, which was fraught with bouts of insomnia and hallucinations. She tries to comprehend Smith’s death by reflecting on the loving partnership that she shared with him. She learns to cope with loneliness by relying on the comfort of friends. And, slowly, she discovers the meaning to be found in life’s little moments.
The brilliant writer and poet Donald Hall movingly chronicles his long-term relationship and marriage to a younger poet, Jane Kenyon, in The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2006. ISBN 9780618773626. pap. $13.95). Learning that the love of his life has approximately 15 months to live after being diagnosed with leukemia, Hall, as the primary caregiver, must cope with the emotional ups and downs of her condition. In this evocative reminiscence, Hall intersperses touching details of their life together before the diagnosis with details of Kenyon’s struggle with the disease.
Not all tragedies are fatal. Paul West, a professor and author with a fierce intellect, had a sudden massive stroke causing damage to the major language sections of his brain. As a result, he was rendered unable to process language or speak. His wife, Diane Ackerman, details his recovery in One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir (Norton. 2012. ISBN 9780393341744. pap. $15.95). She vividly depicts the frustration, hardships, and diverse types of therapy (including devising tender pet names for each other) that she employed to help West on his difficult, trying, and impressive journey back to speech.
Finally, Eve Pollard illustrates how creatively authors imagine grief in fiction. Her alternative history, Jack’s Widow (Morrow. 2007. ISBN 9780060817053. pap. $13.95), expertly blends fact with fiction in envisioning Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in the years following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. When Camelot comes crashing down around her, Jackie must deal with the knowledge of his numerous affairs, especially his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Her innermost thoughts are movingly revealed as she faces new challenges and eventually decides to marry Aristotle Onassis. Grand poetic license is taken as, instead of getting a job as an editor with a top-notch publishing company, this “newly invented” Jackie becomes a CIA informant.
This column was contributed by freelance writer April L. Judge, The Reading Group Girl. She lives in Morris Plains, NJ, and is Director, West Caldwell Public Library.