The Art of Losing a Husband

Epilogue: A Memoir
By Anne Roiphe
Harper, 214 pages, $24.95

Reading the opening lines of Epilogue, Anne Roiphe’s memoir about the death of her husband, I felt the same exasperation that I experienced upon learning, also via memoir, that Katha Pollitt can’t drive a car. Ms. Roiphe, apparently, doesn’t know how to open the locked door of her own apartment: “For the 39 years of our marriage, my husband always pulled out his key and opened the door when we returned from an evening out. During the day I left the door unlocked. We had a doorman.” (Is it possible that over the span of four decades, Ms. Roiphe, a successful, prolific writer—and former columnist for The Observer—never once came home at night by herself, say, from a speaking engagement?) The idea of that learned helplessness rankles. But very quickly she snaps out of it. “I was aware that in this widowhood,” she writes a few pages later, “I could use a sharp infusion of feminist pride, a sense of my own power, a disinterest in attachment, a venturesome soul daring to walk my own path.”

Unlike Joan Didion, who in The Year of Magical Thinking seems eternally lost in the thicket of grief, Ms. Roiphe at least takes a stab at finding her way out. Not that there aren’t many eloquent passages about the nature of loss, as well as a moving portrait of her husband “H.,” a psychoanalyst who, much like John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack in their apartment building. But Ms. Roiphe is just as intent on portraying how you put your life—including your love life—back together, and those are the liveliest sections of the book. Her daughters placed a personal ad for her in The New York Review of Books, and soon a letter arrived from a 69-year-old divorcé, a retired public relations executive. They met for lunch at a bistro on the Upper West Side and “he told me that customs had changed since I was a girl and asked me if I understood what was expected in today’s dating world,” she recalls. “His hand was on my knee. His other hand was stroking my arm up and down as if it were a horse’s nose. We had known each other for exactly twenty-five minutes.”

Ms. Roiphe signed up to match.com and more prospective suitors followed, all unsuitable, but she tried to keep an open mind. She entered into a correspondence with an engineer in Pittsburgh. “I think it doesn’t matter that he is a Lutheran and I am Jewish. Those distinctions belong to another time of life. … But then he says that his life was changed by Dr. Phil. I don’t respond. The conversation ends.” Online dating, it turns out, is just as horrifically random for the senior set as it is for the rest of us. One of Ms. Roiphe’s potential suitors couldn’t enter the year of his birth on his profile because the program didn’t go back far enough (he was 89); nonetheless, he urged her, “Let’s seize the moment, let’s take advantage of what time we have.”

Widowhood brought money problems, too. Ms. Roiphe had to sell her beach house because of a lawsuit brought by someone from her husband’s past whom she can’t identify because of a nondisclosure agreement (but we know the plaintiff is not H.’s ex-wife, who also tried to drain money from his account). Ms. Roiphe has exposed skeletons in her closet before, most notably in 1185 Park Avenue (1999), her excellent family history of jaw-dropping dysfunction featuring a mentally unstable mother, a philandering father, and a brother who for years kept his AIDS a secret—and then died.

 

H., AND THE MORE examined life she built with him and their children, shielded her from her past—yet another reason to mourn his loss. But by the end of this new book, Ms. Roiphe notes that “widowhood, as I am now growing accustomed to it, can be a calm place.” There was something very well-defended about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, even though it read like an open wound. By revealing not just her vulnerability but also her resilience in Epilogue, Anne Roiphe takes far more risks.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a contributing writer for Elle. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

The Art of Losing a Husband