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Past: Perfect! Present: Tense! Insights from One Woman’s Journey as the Wife of a Widower
By Julie Donner Anderson
Review by: Joan Petit


ISBN 0595274803

About a year ago, I married a widower. He and I had been together over five years, and it had been six years since his wife died suddenly in a car wreck. In my late 20s, most of my friends were barely married themselves, never mind divorced or widowed. So I eagerly started this book, looking, I suppose, for validation of my own experiences and insight into the situation of others.

I found that—validation. I also found less than I hoped. The writing was bumpy, the generalizations overwhelming. Though the subtitle of the book indicates that this book offers “insights from one woman’s journey,” in many cases the author, Julie Donner Anderson, assumes that her experiences are the norm (including her Christian faith). She apparently talked to other wives of widowers (or WOWs as we are cheekily labeled in this book), but not to any widowers (except her husband), or children of widowers, or friends of widowers. I would have liked to hear from those people. This book is stuck between two very different genres: memoir and self-help. Choosing one and sticking to it likely would have made a big difference.

Donner Anderson does address some of the most important issues up front: the challenge of finding people to lean on without feeling selfish and petty; dealing with the dead wife’s friends and family, who might be uncomfortable with the new relationship; understanding your own complex relationship towards this dead woman; and trying to understand your husband’s feelings. She asks important and relevant questions about grief, recovery, and love, and, in many cases, offers good insight.

For example, Donner Anderson explains the difficult situation wives of widowers are in:

WOWs are women who know … they were not the first choice of their husband’s heart in the marriage department. Surreal as it sounds they also accept that they wouldn’t be married to their men if the late wives had lived (xix).

This is pretty good stuff. The bad comes when she over generalizes, specifically when discussing the “WOW’s competitive nature”:

Shamefully she rages at the ghost of his late wife for being ever-present in her marriage, and starts to resent this woman’s prior existence on this planet and in her husband’s heart (xix).

Yikes. I’d hate for people to think that this anger is universal for all women married to widowers.

My reaction to most of this book was either one extreme or another: “Exactly!” or “What?!” And even though I, as the wife of a widower, have sympathy for author, some sections seemed terribly spiteful:

(I)f your husband insists on decorating the new Christmas tree with ‘her’ unusual (read: tacky) ornaments alongside of yours, it’s only natural to want to ‘accidentally’ (read: purposefully) break them” (17).

This theme plays out over and over again, as when as she asks,

Why do we WOWs have such a great need to hear from our husbands that we are superior in every way to their late wives? (13).

While my relationship with my husband had its particular challenges in the early days (like all relationships), I did not feel so competitive with his first wife and certainly did not need to hear that I was a better person than she. We also resolved many of these issues before we married. Perhaps finding this book sooner in our relationship would have helped validate my emotions. But so much of this book had me shaking my head in disagreement.

Donner Anderson offers a disclaimer at the outset (she is not a trained psychologist or therapist), yet inserts us immediately into her particular situation. The generalizations—more characteristic of a self-help tract—clash with the many personal anecdotes. This book might be helpful for Christian women in new relationships with widowers, and perhaps the friends of widowers who are just beginning to date again. And I suppose if it helps, it is a good thing. But it would have been better for the author to write a memoir, from which readers could have drawn their own insights. The problem is not the anecdotal nature of the book, but that the author applies her situation and her faith to everyone else.


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