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[347] A Widower’s Tale – Julia Glass

” Countless times I had wondered, as I did on that pink, hazy, tropically warm evening just over a year ago, how Poppy would have handled this daughter differently; if she would have steered Clover to steadier ground—yet not as often as I had wondered what I might have done (or not done) on another, equally sultry summer night to alter whatever simple chain of events had led to Poppy’s drowning in the pond. ” [1:33]

There’s a lot going on in A Widower’s Tale, almost too much.It is rich with the complexities of everyday life, full of remarkable and diverse characters that are suffice to make up a slice of America. Through the clutter of many characters and their crises, the novel overflows with a magnificent, multi-layered richness. However, this book is trumped by the ambition to cover every aspect of what the author might perceive as the problems confronting the world. Every once in a while a slyly placed comment like “It’s a stodgy place—practically Republican” would pop up, something that is neither far from the truth nor does it advance the storyline.

Set in New England, A Widower’s Tale focuses on the lives of four men: Percy, Robert, Celestino, and Ira. Alternating narratives told from their perspectives weave together a tale full of concurrent actions and developments. Only Percy Darling, the widower of the title, is given the honor of having his story told in the first person. His narrative is by far the most engaging and dramatic, alternating between the past and the present, covering life with his deceased wife, single parenthood, and a late romance. His story becomes a unifying point at which the entire skein of characters converge at the end. Percy is 70, a retired Harvard librarian who has spent decades in self-inflicted solitude following the inadvertent death of his wife. He allows his barn to become a preschool in exchange for employment for his rootless older daughter, who is going through a divorce and fighting custody for her two children. The opening of the school brings about drastic changes in Percy’s life, who is resistant to changes and regards any new developments vulgar and outlandish. He is apprehensive about the loss of certain privileges he took for granted.

Elsewhere in my addled psyche, I wondered just how much of a fool I’d been to spend the prime decades of my life so blandly as a monogamist and then a monk in an era of merrily fulfilled concupiscence. Poppy would have been amused to see me loosening up just as the rest of the world is clamping down. [4:114]

The uptight trustafarian finds his world turned upside down as he falls for a younger woman with an adopted son. A contingent complication in the budding relationship emotionally tests him in ways that he would never imagined. To add shame into his roil is his beloved grandson, Robert, an honors pre-med student at Harvard who is believed to most likely follow his mother’s footstep to become a physician, becomes involved in an eco-activism movement that turns violent. Ira, a gay teacher at the preschool, becomes with Percy and Robert. He, too, had been victim of personal exile as he was stigmatized on the account of his sexual orientation. Celestino is an illegal Guatemalan immigrant working as a gardener for Percy’s next-door neighbor. Although Celestino’s story is more gratuitous than necessary, his struggle ultimately upstages Percy’s.

A Widower’s Tale encompasses a truckload of contemporary issues that would baffle the Congress and United Nations combined. The beauty, as it dawns on me later, is not in what “happens” as much as it is the complexity of the characters, who, regardless of their social status and stations, are flawed and authentic. It captures the timeless themes of multi-generational relationships, love and forgiveness, family loyalty and betrayal, the meaning of parenthood, and the intricate web of human conditions. The book is a celebration of interconnectivity of human lives. It also muses on, from Percy’s (the oldest character) perspective that the new changes brought about by advent of technology doesn’t necessary make the world a better place to be. Old values are to be continuously valued.

402 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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10 Responses

  1. Even though I moderately enjoyed this book, I never reviewed it. I couldn’t put it all into words. Then I saw Julia Glass speak at the Texas Book Festival, and it clicked into place. She doesn’t write young adults well. I thought Robert and his friend (can’t remember the name) just weren’t spot on. Some of the dialogue was stilted. So though I enjoyed Percy and parts of the story, overall, it didn’t work for me.

    Great review. You were able to put into words what I was unable to.

    • The story is very enjoyable, but somehow during the process of reading I often get lost or overwhelmed by her desire to imbue this world view. I want to escape the news headlines and problems of the world when I read. Does that make sense?

  2. Too bad that the author didn’t narrow down what to write about….still sounds like one I would enjoy.

  3. “The book is a celebration of interconnectivity of human lives.”

    This would describe the two novels of hers that I have read (not, yet, this one). They do feel a little meander-y, in kind of an old-fashioned, George Eliot-ish way, but I like that. And I’ll be interested to see if any of the characters from earlier works reappear here: I love it when that happens.

    • If I remember correctly, one of her characters reappears “I See You Everywhere” from her earlier work. I don’t find anyone I know in this novel.

  4. Ah I’ve heard very good things about Glass, her stories and her writing.

  5. Will the widower find happiness in a new relationship? Will his grandson succumb to a Rasputin roommate? Will the Guatamalan find his anglo teen love before the INS finds him? And will the submissive gay teacher accept the proposal of a dominant high-end divorce lawyer? By the end, I didn’t really care. And I think I’ll pass on the mini-series..

    The failure of a woman author to convincingly take on the lives of not one but four men speaks more to the difficulty of the challenge than to her skill as a novelist.

    • The book does linger too indulgently before reaching the end which will answer all three of your questions. Even the ending somehow ties all the bundles together, I prefer it to be more succinct and less political.

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