While cruising through Elliott Bay Books one Friday afternoon after writing group, I spot The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass on a front table. I’m excited because I loved her earlier novel, Three Junes, but I must admit I’m slightly put off by the title. Do I really want to read a story about an old man, a “widower”? Even that title is old-fashioned and I figure it will be a depressing story about how the old man’s wife (no doubt the love of his life) is dead and he’s struggling to find his way through the end of his own life. And then I do my usual test: read the first sentence of the novel (or a few more if I’m immediately drawn in) then flip to the middle and read a paragraph there to see if it holds up. I know that novelists spend lots of time re-writing the opening of a novel because the first ten pages will either convince an agent and/or publisher to continue reading, or not. And I also know that the middle can sometimes be a “muddle” in a weak story. I also read the blurb and the quotes on the back. Sure enough, the book is about a seventy year old man but also about “one family’s near destruction, and how a slew of seemingly bad moves reconnects it.” I love the writing, so I buy it.
And I’m not disappointed. The widower is, indeed, a 70 year old Percy Darling, whose wife has died tragically more than twenty years before the novel opens. But there’s nothing dull about this guy. It’s clear that he feels guilty about his wife’s death; he blames himself and we wonder right away what he may have done to cause it. The other main characters include his two grown daughters: Trudy, a highly successful doctor, and Clover who, at 44, is floundering. Clover may, however, be on the verge of getting her life together as a preschool teacher after walking away from her husband and children in New York and drifting for a while. Percy allows the community’s precious preschool “Elves and Fairies” to move into the barn where his wife taught dance classes in the sixties to give Clover a chance to succeed. Then there’s his twenty year old grandson, Robert, son of Trudy, clearly on the road to success as a pre-med student at Harvard and his activist college roommate, Arturo, who’s involved in what appears to be harmless prankster environmental protests.
Mostly what I like about this story is how the characters’ stories are intertwined. The author allows Percy Darling to behave as 70 year olds may now behave (he gets a younger girlfriend) and not like some old man. He is the glue that keeps this family together. The bond between Percy and his grandson is believable and important to both of them, to all of them. Also at play here is the idea of what it means to be an outsider (not privileged) in the very elite world of Harvard and surrounding New England upscale communities. I don’t see what’s coming – the event that changes everything – and I like the way the story ends. One character’s life is changed irrevocably and not in a good way. While this is not exactly a happily ever after ending, it seems real and filled with some hope.