Pros: Another detailed and compelling novel from Irving
Cons: Somewhat tedious; similar in structure to "The World According To Garp"
Ruth Cole may be a child of the fifties, but her parents bear no resemblance to Ward and June Cleaver. The Cleavers had answers to any problems their sons faced. In 1958, Ted and Marion Cole still have not recovered from the loss of their sons in an accident that happened the year Ruth was born. Ted and Marion live in their past, each in their own way. Ted tells Ruth about all of the stories that the photographs of the boys. Marion becomes a loving, but distant, mother to Ruth. During the summer of that year, Marion has decided to leave Ted. Before she leaves for good, Marion gets involved with Eddie O'Hare, a New Hampshire student who has been hired to assist Ted as he writes his next children's novel. In the novel "A Widow For One Year," John Irving takes a look at these four characters and shows how the events of that summer shaped their lives.
Eddie was so taken by Marion, he made certain promises to her before she estranged herself from Eddie and Ruth. One of the things leads to Eddie losing his job and a permanent separation from Ted. Another promise takes Eddie on a path where he becomes a companion to a series of women, most of whom are older than he. Eddie, in fact, never sees any of the members of the Cole family for over thirty years, until Ruth, who's now a writer herself, asks Eddie to speak at a reading she's giving. Ruth herself is confident, but reserved and very particular about herself and her writing. However, she has received some criticism on her novels that she takes to heart. She's so sensitive to the criticism, Ruth decides to live an experience for her novel in progress, rather than drawing from a combination of knowledge and imagination. This results in some disastrous moments in the short run, but a more rewarding moment at a later point. Ruth also has never had a real relationship with a man because she is so particular. The best relationship she has with the opposite sex is with her editor, Allan Albright. After a promotional tour of Germany and the Netherlands, Ruth decides that Allan is the right man for her. They marry and have a son, but Allan dies suddenly. A man from Ruth's past then helps to show her the road to her future.
"A Widow For One Year" is yet another visit to territory with which Irving is familiar: northeastern writers and the unusual aspects of their lives. Ruth Cole is a rarity among women born in the fifties. As a child, she was raised, for the most part, by a single father. Marion Cole didn't even want custody of Ruth. She knew Ted would comply with the divorce, and she got exactly what she wanted. This novel has many of the same elements as Irving's most celebrated work, "The World According To Garp." In "Garp," the title character and his wife have to come to grips with the death of a child, and have another after that loss. Both Garp and Ruth were born after members of their immediate family have died. The first significant loss that Ruth would know, though, would be the departure of Marion. Deaths in her immediate family would eventually affect Ruth, but, unlike T. S. Garp, she does more to embrace her closest friends. She gets on with her life for the sake of her young son, Graham. While Irving, once again, tells a very good and thorough story, I found parts of "A Widow For One Year" to be repetitive, as he tends to drive home some certain details of his narrative. It seems to me that Irving doesn't always trust that his readers will remember every pertinent detail. I had no problems understanding the novel, or the motivations of his characters.
Ruth Cole may be somewhat reserved and very particular, but Irving does bring out the humorous side of Ruth and the rest of his characters. As she undertakes the writing of her latest novel, Ruth shows that she can try too hard to please some of her readers. Her research for her latest novel takes her to the red light district of Amsterdam, and to a fling with one of her more fanatical readers. The end result is another well-received work, but she has to rely on that man to help her in a crucial situation. When Ruth becomes intimate with another man, she teaches him that when she wants things her way, he'd better not improvise. Eddie, who also makes his living by writing, is ever the charmer, especially with older women. The older woman who still charms him the most, though, is Marion. He thinks he knows what became of Marion, but doesn't know for sure until the final chapter of the book. Ruth's best friend, Hannah Grant, is the opposite of Ruth in many ways. Hannah, in fact, encourages Ruth to have a bad relationship. However, she shows her friendship when Ruth needs friends the most. Ted Cole teaches his daughter what to expect from men, drawing from his own experience with the women in his life. The novel, in fact, begins with Ruth catching Eddie and Marion together. The decision that leads Marion to become intimate with Eddie is also humorous. Through their sense of humor, Irving shows how these characters deal with the sorrows in their lives.
I also thought that Irving's usage of seasons worked well. In the opening section, "Summer 1958," the characters are in the prime of their lives. The course of their lives is about to change as the already emotionally distant Ted and Marion prepare to part ways for good. Eddie has come to the Cole home to learn more about writing from Ted, but he also learns about what he wants in a woman. The summer marks Ruth indelibly as well, for her young mind absorbs every detail of what she sees as well as Ted can tell the stories of every picture in the house the Cole sons Timothy and Thomas, whom Ruth never knew. In the second section, "Fall 1990," Ruth and Hannah hear the ticking of their biological clocks, and reach different conclusions on that matter. When Ruth makes a promotional tour for her book, she comes to learn that other adventures await her in life, including the renewal of her friendship with Eddie, whom she hadn't seen since 1958. In the final section, "Fall 1995," Ruth has to deal with the passing of Allan, and the raising of Graham. The other characters have to deal with losses of their own, but they also come to appreciate the life that awaits them.
"A Widow For One Year," is more than a novel about writers. It's about how one writer defines a family. Ruth Cole has a biological family, but people, like Eddie, Hannah, and Allan, who make their living in writing-related activities, become closer to Ruth than Marion Cole. Like a real family, they don't always agree with the life choices made by the others, but they're always available for support. Each member of the Cole family has success as authors, and Ruth finds herself drawn to people with like-minded pursuits. "A Widow For One Year" is also about separation. Marion Cole deliberately puts distance between herself and Ruth. Yet, mother and daughter turn out to be alike in many ways. Ruth Cole, like her parents, tends to go to extremes for her art. Like Ruth, Marion learns that any form of family is essential to flourish.
This has been my entry in the Ed Grover Appreciation write-off. I chose this work because when I reviewed "The Door In The Floor" in 2004, Ed had expressed an interest in seeing this film, and had not read any John Irving for awhile. Since I had not read any Irving for awhile, I took this opportunity to read the book. In the process, I found an added measure of appropriateness for this selection. For more details on this write-off, visit the profile page of eplovejoy: http://www.epinions.com/user-eplovejoy
Related review - The Door In The Floor: http://www.epinions.com/content_155232145028