Francisco Goldman’s searing account of losing a young wife
One of the most affecting things I’ve read this year was the long New Yorker piece by Francisco Goldman, who will be at the Miami Book Fair, about the tragic bodysurfing accident that took the life of his much younger wife.
The New Yorker piece is condensed from Goldman’s book, Say Her Name, that I have not, alas, read (So many books!). But judging from reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere, it’s a brilliant piece of personal memory throughout.
Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the glittering author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20.
Actually, the long reminiscence I did read is about much more than tragedy. In a strikingly artful yet straightforward narrative, Goldman hints at an impressive array of human feelings and experiences in his relationship with Aura Estrada, a promising young writer who became first his student, then his wife, before she died at the age of 30.
Generally I avoid nonfiction accounts of personal tragedy, especially concerning the untimely death of a loved one, for few aspects of human life are harder to convey. Even the most sincere and talented of writers sometimes fail to avoid bathos. (Three exceptions: A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis, Alex: The Life of a Child, by Frank DeFord; The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion).
By discipline and craftsmanship and a severe honesty, Goldman captures the joys and the tensions of his too-brief time with Aura, as well as the crippling grief that followed her death: ”Every day,” he writes, is “the ruin of the day that was supposed to have been.”
Most of all, he presents his late wife as deep, complicated, a source of constant feminine invention — but he never quite puts her on a pedestal.
Consider this observation by Robin Romm in The New York Times Book Review, writing about Goldman’s characterization of Aura:
“Like Goldman, she recognizes the gorgeousness of imperfection, and engages in the flirtatious cruelties that layer their intimacy. ‘Ay mi amor, qué feo eres!’ she says. (‘Oh my love, how ugly you are!’) She compares him to a frog, all the while playing up a magnetic vanity. ‘You are so lucky, Francisco, she would say. You are the luckiest man on earth, to have a young, intelligent, talented wife who loves you the way I do. Do you know how lucky you are?’ I am so drawn to this forward, funny, precocious young woman, I found myself wishing I could dig into that scene and just snatch her out of it.”
Goldman was 47, an established novelist and college professor, when he met Aura, who was then an unknown but ambitious writer of only 25. They had fewer than five years together, the last two as husband and wife. The relationship was not without rocky stretches, and after her fatal accident on a Mexcian beach, Aura’s family blamed Goldman and threatened to have him jailed.
Son of a Guatamalan immigrant mother and a Jewish-American father, Francisco Goldman was born in Boston. He gained wide attention with his first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens (1992), which was awarded the Sue Kaufman for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
His other two novels, The Ordinary Seaman and The Divine Husband, also received good reviews and prize nominations. His nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder, a literary journalistic account of the assassination of Guatamalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi Conedera, was named to The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books for 2007. For more, see Goldman’s website.
For a thoughtful interview with Goldman, visit The Paris Review. Another review can be found at the Guardian, where Maya Jaggi praises the book’s “startling vivisection of grief”, its “redeeming beauty.”
Say Her Name is said to be “lightly fictionalized.” Perhaps that’s why it feels — at least the New Yorker excerpt I read — so very real.