Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guest Book Review: Saturday Night Widows

By Denise D. Keliuotis

When Becky Aikman was still in her forties, her husband, Bernie, died. A year later, Aikman mustered the strength to attend a widows’ support group. She hoped to find a new start, some camaraderie. She hoped to find hope. Instead, Aikman found almost a dozen older women absolutely stuck in the “anger” stage of grief, women who’d given up on anything remotely resembling hope, women who set their sad, bitter sights on the much younger Aikman, driving her out of the group after one single uncomfortable session.

But Aikman refused to be deterred. She simply would not buy into the shaky paradigm that widowhood just means another kind of death, one reserved for the living. Aikman decided to form her own group, one for widow’s like her, women wanting to live their altered life, whatever form that life might take. A few years later, Aikman’s dream became reality. It became the Saturday Night Widows.

The Saturday Night Widows are six New York-area women brought together by Aikman as she explores the grief of losing her husband after twenty years of marriage. The Widows range in age from thirty-nine to fifty-seven, and they range in lifestyle from stay-at-home mom to polished professional. All begin as strangers but, with Aikman’s help, they come together as friends.

It’s no surprise the women in Aikman’s circle possess varied personalities, a fact true with any group, of course, and one that makes Saturday Night Widows such a rich read. We meet Leslie, the sweet and saucy South African middle-aged mother of two who’s ready to ask her new boyfriend to move in. Then there’s the quiet book editor, Denise, the youngest in the group and the most recently widowed. There’s also Dawn, the petite blond spitfire who’s begun dipping her toe back into the dating pool; and Marcia, the tough corporate attorney who only gradually lets down her guard. We meet Tara, the sophisticated, smoky-voiced mother and philanthropist whose marriage was troubled long before her husband died. And, finally, there’s Aikman herself, the woman who lost her husband of two decades but who gained the impetus to draw her own circle of friends.

Saturday Night Widows follows the women for a year, along a journey that includes hope and heartbreak and humor. The women meet monthly, and each time they participate in an activity. Together, they take a cooking class, visit a spa, and shop for lingerie. Somewhat predictably, they end the year with a big trip to an exotic place, a trip seemingly more suited for Aikman, who chose the locale in part to push the other women beyond their cushy comfort zones. But the predictability of the trip takes little away from the true beauty of this book: Aikman’s careful weaving of five individual stories into one gorgeous tale of friendship, support, and love.

Aikman does an amazing job of capturing the women on the page. Yet, in the end, the woman I felt I knew the least was Aikman herself. Ironically, Aikman organized the group to create a setting where she felt she could fit in, but she often seems – and seems to feel – like a bit of an outsider. With the exception of the times she is telling her own story, Aikman comes across more as an observer, a reporter, than as a participant. It’s hard to tell whether that role was by choice or default, as Aikman touts a long career as a journalist, and she often seems most comfortable in that role. But this distance is a plus; other than the final trip, Aikman never attempts to manipulate any outcome, providing an unbiased glimpse into the women’s hearts.

My favorite chapter comes toward the end, when the now tight-knit group meets up with a handful of male counterparts. The men don’t mind the “widower” label; to the contrary, they find it a “positive” – at least so far as meeting single women. While the men boast of “sympathy sex,” the widows roil and reel and recoil. They literally hiss. The party starts to divide into widows vs. widowers, but only briefly, because when the men finally open up, it becomes clear that widowerhood comes with its own costs. The men gradually reveal their envy of the emotional closeness the women have created in a few short months, something the men find more difficult as a result of their gender. “It strikes me,” one says, “that you women are lucky to have each other.”

Though the underlying subject matter is heavy, Saturday Night Widows didn’t weigh me down. Aikman sets out to tell a story of hope, not hurt, and she succeeds. Her narrative flows smoothly and her writing style is both straightforward and sweet. You certainly don’t need to be a widow to enjoy or relate to this book. It’s enough if you’ve ever loved and lost – or even if you’ve ever just loved. And it’s enough if you’ve ever had the luck of being a piece of a group, part of a relationship bigger than yourself. If you haven’t, you will close this book wishing with all of your heart that, someday, you will be as lucky as the Saturday Night Widows.

Denise De Fabio Keliuotis is a Chicago native who lives in the ‘burbs with her husband and three daughters (one of whom is off at college – gasp!) She’s a licensed attorney but is not currently practicing, instead spending her time writing a memoir, volunteering at a hospice, and wondering just how many more cats she can rescue before she qualifies as the “crazy cat lady.” You can find her at her blog.

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