I violently hated this novel in its first 300 or so pages and only came to tolerate (and even mildly like) the story as it wrapped up its final threads. I state this at the very beginning in order to establish that I am emphatically not the target audience for this novel, but it doesn’t mean that John Irving’s brand of fiction will not work for you. My sister is an Irving fan, and she was the one who convinced me to give him a try. However, the novel that she likes (Hotel New Hampshire) apparently has sad stuff in it so I tried this one instead.
A Widow for One Year follows novelist Ruth Cole during three seminal periods of her life, from a summer in 1958 with her mother’s affair and subsequent disappearance that unmoored her as a five-year old, a trip to Amsterdam decades later when she becomes witness to a crime, to her life as a widow and mother years later. Revolving around her is a solar system of characters that often interact with chaotic results. These include Ted Cole, philandering father and successful children’s lit author, Eddie O’Hare, mediocre novelist who lives his entire adult life in love with Ruth’s absent mother Marion, and a well-read Dutch cop who ends up falling in love with Ruth.
Literally every other character in this story is a white upper middle class novelist, with various degrees of successes. They all “summer” in the Hamptons. They play squash in between bouts of lovingly depicted infidelity. Two characters reunite during a book reading at the 92nd St. Y. Ruth does research for her next novel by exploring the sex trade in Amsterdam. There are so many barf-worthy affectations that I’ve wondered whether the entire novel is a highly opaque parody of soft-spoken, public radio-supporting, well-traveled East Coast intelligentsia and Irving is just waiting for everyone to notice. My reaction as I flipped pages can be summed by an animated gif of Judy Garland gaily singing “I don’t caaaare.”
Embedded into dubious plot points are instances of clear-eyed and beautifully rendered imagery, including the multiple photographs of Marion and Ted’s deceased sons, brothers that a young Ruth never met. The novelistic pastiches are also credible, particularly the excerpts from Ted’s creepy children’s stories. The least convincing ones come from Marion’s detective novel (of course), which is characterized as commercial fiction but is much too inert and ponderous to be one.
The most interesting character ended up being the Dutch cop that became entangled with Ruth through a series of highly spoilery events. It probably helps that he is parachuted into the slow-motion train crash of Ruth’s familial relationships and he functions as someone who grounds her through all the chaos.
Speaking of trainwrecks, a lot of pages were used to talk about Eddie O’Hare’s sad and ineffectual life. I want to get back the hours of my life reading those pages. I understand that Eddie is depicted as an inherently buffoonish figure, but I also resented how the narrative is trying to make me sympathetic towards him from the moment he becomes attracted to Marion as a teenager up until he decides to transfer his capped affections towards an adult Ruth. Gross.
This novel is a mess, sure, but messy novels aren’t usually a dealbreaker for me. However, A Widow for One Year is an unwieldy collection of tropes that left me aggressively apathetic. Maybe this brand of narrative irony just isn’t for me.