Breathe by Joyce Carol Oates: A review

 

It's been years since I read a Joyce Carol Oates book. I'm not sure why really. Maybe I was intimidated by the last one I read. She can be an intimidating writer. But when I read about her newest one, I was intrigued and knew I had to read it. Breathe is about grief and about how it can disorient a person and upend their life.

Forty-eight-year-old Gerard McManus and his second wife 37-year-old Michaela have come to New Mexico to the Santa Tierra Institute for Advanced Research from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Gerard had been a professor of the history of science at Harvard. He was invited to spend an eight-month residency at the Santa Tierra Institute and his wife found employment teaching a weekly memoir workshop at the University of New Mexico. It was to be an adventure for them, but it was an adventure that quickly went wrong when Gerard became ill. At first, it was thought to be nothing too serious but that diagnosis quickly changed and by the time we meet him at the Santa Tierra Cancer Center, he is already on his way out. Soon he is transferred to hospice care and Michaela's vigil begins.

The book is divided into two parts, "The Vigil" and "Post-Mortem." Gerard is the dominant presence in each of them as Michaela sees her own life as inconsequential in comparison to her husband's. After her husband's death and cremation, a representative of the institute suggests to her that she should go home to Cambridge but she refuses. She can't bring herself to leave the place where Gerard was last present. She feels him everywhere and she begins to see him everywhere.

Perhaps it isn't unusual for a grieving spouse to continue to feel her partner's presence but soon Michaela's distress leads to outright hallucinations. She imagines that she had tried to give bone marrow to save Gerard's life but the procedure was botched and she ends up paralyzed. She gets a voice mail message saying that it was all a terrible mistake; her husband hasn't really died even though at this point his body has already been cremated. She looks for him everywhere and frequently catches glimpses of him in a crowd. Meanwhile, she herself seems to be disappearing. When she looks in the mirror, parts of her face are missing and a section of her left arm begins to fade.

And what about Michaela in her grief? Does she have no friends or relatives who can comfort her? Clearly not. We learned at the beginning of the book that her parents had been dead for decades, although later on, it appears that they may not be dead at all, merely out of touch. Perhaps that is the same thing as far as Michaela is concerned. Apparently, she has no siblings or if she does, they are out of touch also. Gerard, though, did have adult children from his previous marriage and did not want them informed so that they could visit him as he lay dying. Michaela acceded to his wishes and even after his death, she delays in informing them. Obviously, this was not a close-knit, supportive family.  

Anyone who has ever lost someone they love can empathize with Michaela's situation up to a point. I reached my point about two-thirds of the way through the novel and then I began to lose patience with her. Everyone grieves differently obviously, but most people in the real world have to learn to deal with that and get on with their lives. Michaela, for whatever reason, is incapable of that. She is disoriented in regard to time. Her days pass with excruciating slowness, but at the same time, everything seems to happen very quickly. Her grief controls every aspect of her life. At some point, she begins to feel that Gerard is not the one who died; rather, she is.

Oates' meditation on grief reveals hidden meanings that will probably appear different to each reader based on their own experience of grief. It is an emotionally complicated novel about a woman who has lost her anchor in the real world and now exists only as a shadow in her new hallucinatory existence. Strong stuff. Typical of Oates.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Comments

  1. I'm surprised that I've never read any of her books. I've come close because some titles have intrigued me.

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    1. My experience of her books is that each is very different and yet much alike in that they all get to the heart of the matter and give us much to contemplate.

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  2. Like you, I have not read her for years. I will see if the local library has this one. Miriam has always enjoyed JCO so I have no doubt she will be anxious to read it too.

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    1. If Miriam is a fan, I'm sure she will enjoy this one.

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  3. This sounds very deep and unusual - well at least Michaela's response to grief. I haven't read Oates in 20 years perhaps but, I always check out her new book when I see them at a bookstore and the stories ALWAYS sound like ones I'd want to try. Perhaps some day soon.

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    1. Like you, I've put off reading her for years. I found this one almost equal parts enjoyable and annoying, but I'm not unhappy that I read it.

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  4. This sounds like a very deep book. I'm not sure I would be able to read it NOW but maybe later in time :)

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  5. We used to have to read a lot of her short stories in my high school English class. I've sadly never tried any of her novels.

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    1. She has quite a lot of them to choose from, should you decide to give them a try.

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    2. I'm always careful about books with a grief theme. If they work, I may go through a cathartic but unwanted sadness myself.

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    3. This one is focused very much on Michaela's inability to deal with her grief and her subsequent creation of a dream world where Gerard still lives. It certainly works on that level but personally, I found hard to identify with her character.

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  6. Oates used to be a particular favorite of mine, and I've read dozens of her books over the decades. It's been a couple of years, though, since I've read one because I kind of lost faith in her for personal reasons. But that's another story. I will just add that I am amazed at how prolific a writer she is while still managing to maintain such a high quality of writing.

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    1. She is definitely prolific and has been for a very long time.

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  7. I think Blogger ate my comment from yesterday. I've never read anything (knowingly) by Joyce Carol Oates but I wonder how much of this story may have been inspired by the death of her first husband. Oates was born about 2 1/2 hours from where I live in upstate New York (in one of the villages the Erie Canal runs through, Lockport) so she's "almost" local to me. I should give her a read.

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    1. I did not know those facts about her personal history, especially about the death of her husband. I suspect that experience did inform her interpretation of Michaela.

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  8. I am always amazed by the fact that JCO can churn out high quality novels on a yearly basis. How she does it, I'm not sure. To be honest, until I read your review, I didn't even know JCO had published another new novel recently! JCO has been widowed twice, so am curious how much of her personal life may have inspired this novel.

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    1. Such experiences, especially two of them, must leave a lasting and profound impression on one's psyche and would doubtless influence a writer's work.

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  9. Didn't JCO write a memoir of grief too? About the loss of her husband in 2008, so perhaps this novel is a further extension of that? It's too bad the character can't get out of her grief over time, or at least not have everything affected by it.

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    1. Yes, I just looked it up. It was called A Widow's Story. I think grief over the loss of a loved one is something one never gets over; we just learn to deal with it. JCO has obviously dealt with hers by writing.

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