The Widower's Tale
Pantheon: 402 pp., $25.95
The outspokenly fuddy-duddy 70-year-old patriarch at the center of "The Widower's Tale," Julia Glass' class-consciousness-raising new novel, is a recently retired Harvard librarian named Percival Darling. Couple the surname Darling with just about any moniker — including Wendy and John from "Peter Pan" — and your mind inserts a comma, often evoking a Noel Coward play in which glamorous characters are always "darling-ing" each other, sometimes through clenched teeth.
These associations aren't entirely inappropriate, for even though Percy is nobody's darling, Glass' energetic if unconvincing fourth novel features more of the clever give-and-take of a polished drawing room comedy than the gravity of her National Book Award-winning debut, "Three Junes" (2002), or her last novel, "I See You Everywhere" (2008).
This does not mean Glass has become all bounce and no bite. "The Widower's Tale" shares many of the weighty concerns explored in her previous books, including breast cancer, mortality, mourning, rivalry between sisters and romantic relationships, both gay and straight. In addition, the plight of illegal immigrants, gay marriage and dismay at "vulgar and outlandish" developments in American culture all factor into the narrative here. Curmudgeonly Percy bemoans "Philistines of a novel variety: well schooled, well nourished, well informed (with information convenient to their collectively blinkered conscience)." He is distressed that these interlopers have turned lovely small towns like his beloved Matlock, Mass., that "blender drink of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, spiked with a few rich potheads and off-the-grid entrepreneurs," into "alas, an enclave."
At novel's opening, after three decades of reclusive widowerhood, Percy's life is about to change. No longer in the working world, he is determinedly fit, running miles and taking daily swims in the raw in the tear-shaped pond on the beautiful property outside Boston he bought with his wife nearly half a century earlier. After Poppy's death at 37 in an accident we eventually learn about, Percy stayed on in their 18th century farmhouse, raising their two daughters and remaining almost pathologically faithful to her memory.
His elder daughter, Trudy Darling, named Truthful after the original occupant of the house, is a celebrated Boston oncologist whose only child, Percy's beloved grandson Robert, is a pre-med student at Harvard. When Trudy's younger sister, Clover, turns up in Matlock after leaving her husband and two children in New York, Percy does something so uncharacteristic it strains credulity — which is problematic because it is a linchpin in Glass' plot: He allows his barn, formerly his wife's dance studio and for 32 years a monument to his guilt over her death, to be converted into a nursery school.
Glass would have us believe that a job for the floundering Clover at the cloyingly named Elves & Fairies preschool is what has pushed Percy to sacrifice his privacy, including his nude swims, for a steady stream of workmen, parental drop-offs and pickups and clamorous children. From this unlikely development springs a rash of further changes in Percy's life, including his first love affair since Poppy's death.
With "Three Junes," Glass announced herself as an expansive writer in the generous 19th century mode, willing to make room in her fiction for a multitude of characters, each with their own absorbing story, while addressing contemporary issues. "The Widower's Tale" is also rich in the panoply of humanity, from the Guatemalan "lawn soldier," Celestino, who pines after his former benefactor's daughter, to Robert's radical roommate, Arturo, who ropes his naive friend into clandestine missions with his ecoterrorist group, DOGS — Denounce Our Greedy Society. The DOGS unleash pranks — such as stuffing a brand-new Hummer with corn husks — that escalate alarmingly, with dire consequences.
Glass weaves her various threads together so tightly that her narrative fabric sometimes puckers under the strain. When Percy feels a lump in his girlfriend's breast, we know she'll end up in Trudy's oncology practice. When Clover decides she wants custody of her kids, she's conveniently got her brother-in-law, a mediator, and her gay colleague's boyfriend, a renowned divorce lawyer, to consult.
Fortunately, Glass uses a light touch to intimate the ironic parallels between Arturo's conviction that "What might take down civilization was the sheer frivolity of choice" and Percy's antiquated attachment to "a life rooted in the past," a simpler, less material existence in which a toaster is his only electrical gadget. She is also beautifully sensitive to the nuances of various relationships and the awkward gaps between social classes.
"The Widower's Tale" is about the rub between old values and new times, and the importance of adapting. In the tradition of "Jane Eyre," it builds to a conflagration, a crisis that shakes everyone out of their complacency. But Glass quickly smothers the flames of catastrophe, for her vision is essentially more hopeful than tragic. What matters to her are "real conversations, to shoulder open the heavy door between our lives."
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Washington Post and other publications.