A Widow for One Year
A huge fan of The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, I lost interest in John Irving when he wrote A Prayer for Owen Meany. But the buzz on his newest release, A Widow for One Year, was so good that I shelled out the big ones, and I’m thoroughly glad I did.
The novel is purportedly in three sections, the first when Ruth Cole is four, the next when she is an unmarried and successful novelist in her thirties, and the third when she is a widow of 41. I say “purportedly” because the first section is not really about Ruth, it is about the people, dead and alive, who shaped her life. Those people include two dead brothers, a beautiful mother who fears loving Ruth because of the loss of those two boys, a father who is a children’s author/illustrator who delights in destroying the lives of the women who fall in love with him, and a young man of 16 who comes to live with the Cole family one summer, and never really leaves in spirit.
John Irving delights in sexual shenanigans, and this book is no exception. Young Eddie, the sixteen-year-old, falls in love with Ruth’s mother, as Ruth’s father had hoped – this will make getting a divorce and custody of Ruth easier. Eddie and Marion “do it” sixty times that summer, and Eddie is forever changed – he will write novel after novel about this illicit love after Marion leaves town and her family. Marion and Eddie seem tragic figures; Eddie in particular seems to have had his shining moment that summer, and his attempts to regain that glory are pathetic until the end of the novel, when the author dishes up a surprise.
Ted Cole is selfish, hedonistic, a schemer, and downright peculiar. Reading about him is a fascinating undertaking. This is a very dense book; it took me three times longer to read than most books of a similar length. That’s because Irving stuffs so much detail into each sentence. You might be tempted to skim at times, but if you’re like me, you’ll end up reading every word.
Ruth herself was a odd protagonist. She becomes a quite successful, if not controversial, novelist, and yet cannot find happiness. Not that this seems odd given her background – she’s as much a schemer as her father, but she’s a “better” person than he. While the section of the book focusing on her at age four isn’t truly about her, it’s the best part of the story. Although each other section has a main focus to it, the stage is set in the first act for all that follows.
The remainder of the book explores Ruth as an adult, trying to come to terms with her father’s selfish and unfathomable ways. Later, Ruth is on a promotional tour for one of her books and finds herself in Amsterdam’s red-light district, supposedly researching a novel. What happens on this trip will affect her life, for the good and the bad, but the journey is lengthy and difficult, both for Ruth and the reader.
John Irving realizes that interesting characters are multi-dimensional, and maps out a multitude of routes to bring things full circle. Given the often dark and murky tone of his writing, he is a romantic at heart, and, in his fashion, always creates an happy ending (of sorts) for readers. A Widow for One Year is no exception – it’s an odd undertaking, but well worth it.
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