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Monday, January 10, 2011

The Widower's Tale

The Widower's Tale
by Julia Glass
(4/5 stars)

A good litmus test for how compelling a book is is that when you put it down, you want to pick it back up again.  I put down "The Widower's Tale" on December 1, 2010 after muddling through the first 75 pages and then I didn't crack it open again until after the new year.  So it did in fact take me more than 40 days and 40 nights to finish reading this book.  Not exactly what you'd call a page-turner.

I think a lot of my problem in being able to plow through this book was I felt I'd already read it before--several times.  Much of it focuses on Percy Darling, a retired librarian in a wealthy Boston suburb called Matlock.  An academic from Massachusetts?  The late John Updike made a career with that formula.  The rest of it, though, reads less like Updike to me and more like the well-mannered sibling of Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections."  Glass uses a lot of the same techniques as Franzen, spreading the narrative among multiple characters, though Glass focuses outside the Darling family as well.  The chapters usually have the same structure where they start at a point in the future from the previous chapter and then work back to dovetail where we left off before.  This of course isn't unique to Glass or Franzen, which is only part of my larger point that "The Widower's Tale" presents little that's new.

The narrative I mentioned starts with Percy Darling a 71-year-old retired librarian.  His elder daughter Clover is a neurotic divorcee, who gets a job with a local preschool that takes over the barn on Percy's farm where his beloved wife Poppy used to practice ballet.  There's also 20-year-old Robert, Percy's grandson who goes to Harvard and is studying to be a doctor like his mother Trudy, a world-famous oncologist.  Robert's friend Arturo is a rabid environmentalist, who along with Robert and some other ecowarriors has been pulling various pranks against the affluent people of Matlock and other wealthy suburbs in a probably futile attempt to change the world.

There's also Celestino, an illegal alien from Guatemala who does some gardening work for Percy, and Ira, a gay teacher at Clover's preschool.  Glass could have saved a good 150 pages by eliminating their narratives, because neither really does much for the book.  Celestino's tale of being virtually adopted and taken to America by a wealthy French family is somewhat interesting, but doesn't really go anywhere.  Ira was the stereotypical effeminate gay type straight out of central casting, which I found mildly insulting and wholly unnecessary.

The plot, such as it is, involves multiple threads of Percy falling in love with a woman named Sarah Straight (Straight and Darling?  Really?), who is some 20 years younger than him and develops breast cancer that's treated by Percy's daughter.  The breast cancer part really made me yawn.  I think by now there are about 2,000 movies on Lifetime devoted to breast cancer.  Not that I have anything against people with breast cancer, but it's clearly been done before.  She's tired and loses her hair?  Really?  I'd never heard of that before!  (That might have been true if this were 1957.)

I'm being overly sarcastic here considering I'm giving it four stars.  Glass is a capable enough writer and I think a good many people will find it interesting and entertaining.  Those who thought Franzen's "Corrections" was too dysfunctional and mean-spirited would find this far more warm and soothing.  My primary complaint is that I felt overall I'd seen everything in this book before.  So while it was interesting, it couldn't hold my attention, as indicated above.

It's also the kind of book where a lot of stuff happened, but I didn't feel like I picked up anything of value from it.  I certainly wouldn't call affluent Massachusetts families, a day laborer, and a gay teacher a microcosm of modern American society, at least not a complete one.  Overall the message seemed to be that things change and you roll with the punches.  Wow, I've never heard that before.

That is all.

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