The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating
Henry Holt / February 11, 2014 / $25.00 print, $11.99 digital
Claire Byrne is a quirky and glamorous 34-year-old Manhattanite and the wife of a famous, slightly older man. Her husband, Charlie, is a renowned sexologist and writer. Equal parts Alfred Kinsey and Warren Beatty, Charlie is pompous yet charming, supportive yet unfaithful; he’s a firm believer that sex and love can’t coexist for long, and he does little to hide his affairs. Claire’s life with Charlie is an always interesting if not deeply devoted one, until Charlie is struck dead one day on the sidewalk by a falling sculpture ... a Giacometti, no less!
Once a promising young writer, Claire had buried her ambitions to make room for Charlie’s. After his death, she must reinvent herself. Over the course of a year, she sees a shrink (or two), visits an oracle, hires a “botanomanist,” enjoys an erotic interlude (or ten), eats too little, drinks too much, dates a hockey player, dates a billionaire, dates an actor (not any actor either, but the handsome movie star every woman in the world fantasizes about dating). As she grieves for Charlie and searches for herself, she comes to realize that she has an opportunity to find something bigger than she had before—maybe even, possibly, love.
For those who read Carole Radziwill’s searing, poignant memoir What Remains, about losing her husband Anthony, to cancer, just weeks after the deaths of her best friends Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., there’s only one bit of overlap with her raucous new novel, and it’s a funny one. Radziwill borrowed a real-life incident in which she interviewed a doctor about the ideal woman (it has to do with her waist to hip ratio). Other than that, the Real Housewife has left melodrama behind in favor of drama of the zaniest kind in her debut novel. So while Claire Byrne, her protagonist, interviews a strikingly similar expert doctor, midway through she learns that her husband, the famed writer and sexologist Charles (Charlie) Byrne, has been killed. No, not murder, at least, not by a human, but by a falling piece of art—a counterfeit Giacometti sculpture, at that—after enjoying an extramarital assignation.
Thus begins the comic tale, as Claire grapples with Charlie’s numerous infidelities, a fairly open secret, the splashy, salacious way he died, and his legacy to her—a book his will asks her to finish about a hot, hunky movie stare, Jake Huxley.
Clare doesn’t have much time to wallow in her newly widowed state before everyone around her is pushing her to date and get out in the world. After all, as her best friend Sasha tells her, “Widows are the new virgins, Claire. Men are licking their chops for you right now. They’re all going to want to pop your widow cherry. You have power, and no guilty. Enjoy it!” While Claire isn’t quite so gung ho, she knows that she wasn’t necessarily meant to play second fiddle to Charles, although that’s what she’d wound up doing. She takes baby steps toward feeling out her new, independent life.
Radziwill zeroes in on the humor in Claire’s predicament. Everyone she asks—and plenty she doesn’t—has advice for her, including a griot and a botanomanist (no, you’re not expected to know what those are beforehand), but she’s so used to following in Charlie’s footsteps, she’s not even sure what questions to ask or what she wants. Is her “widow’s virginity” a burden, or a blessing? Should she continue Charlie’s epic next book or try to write another of her own? How much rudeness should she put up with in the name of finding love—or at least, a roll in the hay?
Claire’s bad dates are the kind that are easy to laugh at, if only because we’ve either been on our own atrociously embarrassing outings or we’re grateful our dining companions haven’t been quite so buffoonish as hers. For a woman who met her husband at the tender age of 22, thereby missing out on the typical dating drama, these faux pas are particularly shocking, but she forces herself to glide from one bad date to another in the name of getting out there again.
He’d been divorced for three months and said so more than once. Observations and exclamations popped out of him unexpectedly. He was halfway through a bottle of wine by the time their entrées came—quail for him and chicken potpie for Claire. When his fingers snapped—twice, and loudly—for their water, Claire jumped and the waiter appeared. “I can’t eat this,” Alex said. He was grimacing. His face was contorted into equal parts disgust and alarm. She glanced carefully toward his bird, afraid of spotting a leggy insect crawling out.
“It’s bloody,” he said through clenched teeth, “can’t you see that?” Here, with his fork, he held back a small wing to reveal to Claire and the waiter the unacceptable gore. Claire couldn’t see it.
“Take her plate back, too, please,” said Alex, through a brittle smile. “Keep it warm until you cook mine.” The water snatched up both plates. “You don’t mind, do you, Claire?”
Claire winds up pursuing Huxley, at first in the guise of research, though it quickly becomes clear that she desires more from him than simple information. Who can blame her for wanting to get a little bit closer to him than Charlie probably intended?
“Beaujolais!” she announced. “Big fruit and leafy smells.” She took an exaggerated sniff of the bottle. “I think it’s out of season. There’s a season for Beaujolais, you know.” She could hear herself slurring. She found everything terribly funny. She stumbled and Jake caught her arm. She let her hair fall out of its clip and kicked her shoes across the room. She poured a glass of wine for Jake and kept the bottle. Clutching it, she put it up to her mouth for a long drink and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. This was New Claire now. Claire of the Jungle. Single, young, hot, wild, crazy Claire.
Jake grabbed the bottle and drank from it, too. “You’re a naughty girl, I bet.” Naughty Claire? She considered it. Should she spank him? Spank herself? What would Charlie have said were Claire to ever have inquired about the terms of being naughty?
“You know,” Jake said, rubbing the wine bottle against her throat. Oh God, Claire thought. Am I supposed to do it with the bottle? “I might be stuck here for the night.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
Claire’s adventures in dating, therapy, socializing, gossip and work provide for a great comic novel, one that’s less about who she winds up with and more about how she gets there. It’s fun to see Claire start to let loose, realizing that it doesn’t matter what she tells people who she may never see again. Radziwill’s voice is deadpan—the book does, after all, begin: “The upshot of the story is this: A man falls dead, the widow lets laid, love is a drag, the end. In the gaps, a woman finds meaning.” Yet within the humor and the lessons Claire learns are moments that speak to how we handle death and its aftermath (“Charlie’s family was notorious for being better than everyone at everything, and widowhood was no exception.”). The zany premise and cast of characters let us know from the start that this isn’t a tearjerker, but a romp through high class Manhattan (with detours to Hollywood) and its mating—and mourning—patterns. Is it one of the fairy tales Claire is so fond of? Radziwill’s snappy prose will keep readers hanging until the very end to find out.
Learn more about or order a copy of The Widow's Guide to Sex and Dating by Carole Radziwill, avaialbe February 11, 2014:
Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) is a freelance and erotica writer, and editor of over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms: 69 Sexy Stories; Only You: Erotic Romance for Women; Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission and others. She tweets @raquelita and blogs at Lusty Lady.