The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating by Carole Radziwill

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This weekend, on Friday night, I left a party early in order to come home and read a book written by a Real Housewife of New York. I’m embarrassed. But I couldn’t put the book down. The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating is the new novel by Carole Radziwill. Carole Radziwill, whose opening statement on The Real Housewives of New York is, “If you’re going to talk about me behind my back, at least check out my great ass.”

Not bad given that some of the other housewives’ opening statements are:

“I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m pretty.”

“Sometimes Sonja has to go commando. What can I say?”

“A true New Yorker never backs down, and I’m no exception. Holler.”

Clearly, Radziwill is the writer of the group. I am not a fan of the Real Housewives franchise. I have seen one or two episodes of the one based in Atlanta and one episode of the one based in New York. I find the show unwatchable but I find widows fascinating so I picked up Radziwill’s new book. The front cover blurb, by Candace Bushnell, is predictable and unimpressive. It helps Bushnell to blurb Radziwill as much as it helps Radziwill to get a blurb from Bushnell. But the back cover features praise for this book, Radziwill’s journalism, and her memoir (What Remains), from Susan Sarandon, Christiane Amanpour, and The New York Times Book Review.

Radziwill has had an interesting life and if there is anyone qualified to write an entertaining book on widowhood, it’s her. According to her Wikipedia page, she and her late husband were very close friends of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyne Bessette-Kennedy, both of whom died in a plane crash within a month of Radziwill’s husband dying (of cancer, when he was only 40). Claire Byrne, the protagonist of The Widow’s Guide, is obviously modeled on Radziwill herself. Unfortunately you never get a good sense of who Claire really is – she just sort of coasts along in the months following her husband’s death without any sense of agency. From the one episode of The Real Housewives of New York that I saw, Radziwill does the same. Had I not known her name as a writer, I would never be able to tell the difference between her and the other women on the show. (Does everyone face this problem? Do the Real Housewives of Any City always blend into one another or do they develop distinct personalities if you watch the show for long enough?)

Carole Radziwill

Carole Radziwill

We don’t get to know much about Claire. She never really mourns her husband’s death but that’s okay because Claire Byrne does not need anyone’s pity. He’s clearly left her with plenty of money, so the main issue becomes her widow virginity. We follow Claire’s sexual and romantic exploits as she tries to make her own rules and navigate the largely uncharted waters of young, beautiful widowhood. Of course she has a gay friend who calls her “honey”, a troubled, heavy-drinking girlfriend, therapists, and psychics. You don’t really need to know Claire Byrne in a book that takes less than three hours to read from cover to cover. It’s fun and fast and filled with lines that make the whole book enjoyable. Like: “A husband dies and the world gets just another widow. A wife dies, and a star is born.”

The book is undoubtedly entertaining. Radziwill knows that her intellect will be called into question – as it should be, since she chooses to star in The Real Housewives of New York and, from what I saw, does not come across as a younger Joan Didion. Although, in her defense, the editors of these shows are probably instructed to make all the women appear as vapid as possible. Radziwill’s CV as a journalist is impressive and she holds an MBA from NYU. Despite Bravo’s attempts to portray her as a fool, she certainly is not one. However, in an attempt to prove her smarts, Radziwill peppers the book with “intellectual” references. The book opens with her husband being killed by a falling Giacometti. It’s funny, but is Radziwill clever enough to comment on the fact that these are markers of an intellectual high life in this social circle? I genuinely do not know but it often sounds like a writer defending herself. The highbrow references feel like the literary version of the fashionable thick-rimmed glasses that she keeps putting on and taking off on the show. In The Widow’s Guide, she’s more at ease discussing People Magazine than Hannah Arendt and I wish she’d just give us more of the fun stuff, her forte. I want to hear less about James Joyce and more about the effects of Xanax in this world she inhabits.

Anyway, the more literary references feel Googled instead of organic. Claire, we’re told, was once a finalist in a short story contest for “a prestigious literary journal called Zoetrope: All-Story.” You can picture Radziwill, with her big eyes and plump lips looking through a list of literary magazines, dropping down past The New Yorker, and Harper’s, and Granta, and arriving at Zoetrope. It doesn’t quite fit the manicures, champagne, sex with movie stars, and red-eye flights to LA that populate the rest of the novel.

This book will not change you in any way but if you’re looking for a good reason to slip out of a party this weekend, it won’t disappoint either. The novel is fun and quick and light. Radziwill recasts the traditional widow for us. This is not the story of widow-as-survivor. This is the story of widow-as-glamorous-and-fun-young-woman-rediscovering-the-world.

Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall. You can find her on Twitter @dikshabasu. More from this author →