Jonathan Santlofer is an artist and a writer and someone I consider a friend. In 2013, he lost his wife, Joy, quite suddenly, and his way of coping was to draw and write. This book is the culmination of that endeavor.
There are many books written about grief and many about losing a spouse, but most are written by women about losing their husbands. I hate to generalize but I’m going to. Men tend to be more stoic about loss, less likely to talk about it, much less write about it. But Jonathan is not your average man.
I’ve known Jonathan a long time but didn’t hear about Joy’s passing until a year or so after the fact. At the time, he couldn’t really talk about it and I understood that. When he told me about this book many months ago, I got a digital galley and put it aside. Even though he told me about it and I knew he wanted me to read it, I had to come to grips with reading about his pain. It’s a difficult thing to do when you know and care about the person who is in pain. But with publication looming, I put aside my usual escapist fare and sat down to read it.
Jonathan’s voice was immediately recognizable. This isn’t some new-agey, self-help guide but rather a journey through loss and devastation, grief and pain, and ultimately hope and love. There are many drawings as well, drawing was one of his coping mechanisms and he explains how it helped him. The drawings are simple and beautiful and so expressive of a life well lived.
Joy had been working on her own book called Food City when she passed. A food historian who taught at NYU, she had worked for six years on this book about the food history of New York City and it was truly a labor of love. When she died, she left a manuscript that was twice as long as was contracted for and in need of serious editing. Jonathan and their daughter raised money to pay for an independent editor and along with her publisher, and both of them, they were able to get the book completed. (See my review here.) It was the culmination of an exhaustive project, yet bittersweet that Joy never got to see her finished book. But what a way to honor her.
Lest you think this book is a maudlin meandering of thought, it most certainly is not. Jonathan has a terrific sense of humor and understands the absurdity of life and loss.. He is self deprecating and self aware, and even through some of the most difficult parts of the book, his humor shines through. Don’t get me wrong, I cried through much of this but I also laughed.
Stories about how friends tried to help, or didn’t, were mostly encouraging, occasionally discouraging, and often funny. The set ups, (single men are always a target) not to mention a friend who tried to get him to hire hookers from a website, and poignantly, the realization that widowers are treated differently (better) than widows. I especially loved the chapter, “Stupid Things Said by Smart People,” which was so honest and pointed to something many people struggle with.
A couple of quotes that I thought were simple, eloquent and elucidating:
The fact is, losing one’s partner is an unsolicited litmus test. Some friends pass the test beautifully and others fail.
Grief is two-pronged: to get past it is to move on, a good thing; to get over it, to forget your grief and your former life and all that is attached to it, impossibly sad.
Comparisons to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking are inevitable, and Jonathan is the yin to her yang. This is a beautifully written, haunting and emotional memoir about loss, grief, love, and moving on. It is thought provoking, intelligent, important and ultimately inspirational. This is a book worth reading and sharing.
I’m very glad Jonathan decided to share his Widower’s Notebook.
7/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™
THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer. Penguin Books (July 10, 2018). ISBN 978-0143132493. 272p.