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A Widow for One Year

by John Irving

In the late 1970s when I was teenager I visited a friend who wasn't home. While waiting for him on his parents' back deck, I came across a dog-eared paperback novel with a glossy blue cover and a drawing of a handsome World War II pilot sucking his thumb. The title was large-lettered and odd: The World According to Garp. Garp? I thought. You mean like gorp? Like that nuts and M&Ms thing you take on hikes? Intrigued, I began to read. In some ways I have not left John Irving's imaginative world since.

We've had falling outs. His sixth novel, The Cider House Rules, sufficiently bored me that I did not rush to the seventh, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and only checked it out the day before I traveled abroad. I wound up finishing it in a small Taiwanese noodle shop with tears welling in my eyes. I could never get past the third page of A Son of the Circus, his eighth novel. Consequently I judge his first paragraphs harshly. More than any other serious contemporary writer, John Irving is a story-teller, and I figure if he can't pull me in with his first lines then something is wrong. A Widow for One Year, his ninth novel, begins this way:

One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking — it was coming from her parents' bedroom. It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her. Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.

Questions immediately arise. Who's sleeping in the top bunk? Does young Ruth investigate the sound? Does she try to aid her mother? What exactly does she find? I was hooked before I knew it.

The novel opens in the Hamptons during the summer of 1958 when Ruth's parents, Ted and Marion, are in the process of separating. Five years earlier their two teenage sons were killed in a car wreck. Ruth is a direct result of this tragedy — an attempt to "start anew" — but Marion, melancholic, grows increasingly estranged from her adulterous husband, until he, a famous writer of children's books, hires an "assistant," sixteen year-old Eddie O'Hare, to essentially become his wife's lover. "(That) would turn out to be his real summer job," Irving writes.

The second section takes us all the way up to 1990, when Ruth Cole, now 36, is a famous novelist "with great breasts," we are told time and again. She also has a penchant for choosing bad boyfriends. On a book tour, she meets up with Eddie O'Hare, a less successful novelist who, as a kind of homage to Marion, writes about love affairs between younger men and older women. In the Hamptons, and then Germany and Amsterdam, Ruth encounters one horrific experience after another ("...as for this little lady," the opening epigraph from Thackeray reads, "the best thing I can wish her is a little misfortune."), until she is virtually propelled into making a major life decision. The third section, 1995, is dénouement and happy ending.

There are, inevitably, echoes from Irving's previous work here. The death of the Coles' teenage boys reminds one of Walt's death in Garp: both involve car accidents and parental bickering. Mrs. Vaughn, one of Ted Cole's many seductions, fills the comedic role of Mrs. Ralph. We get Amsterdam prostitutes rather than the Viennese kind. The Moleman is as much a portent of death as the Undertoad. Also, beware of men who bruise women while making love. And if you're that man, beware of Irving: he makes sure you get yours. At one point Ruth Cole even excuses her creator's repetition. "(P)eople who accused an author of repetition were usually referring to a detail they hadn't liked the first time," she thinks.

Not so. I loved the above details in both their original and reconstituted forms. More bothersome was the clunkiness of some of Irving's prose early in the book. It's as if he's sworn off conjunctions. He also telegraphs several jokes — unforgivable from such a skilled humorist — and seems in danger, at times, of becoming a parody of himself. I know he's fond of italics, for example, but this much? It's as if he's someone doing John Irving.

But his imagination is still a wonderful place to reside for a week. And his themes are as large as ever, taking in the power of lust, the tenuousness of love, and how overwhelming grief can cull tolerance from even the most narrow-minded of characters.

Most important, he keeps us reading. He'll give away what happens five, fifty, one hundred pages hence, and, rather than putting us off, it spurs us on. Wow! How's he gonna manage that? It's no small feat. There are contemporary writers with more talent than John Irving; but in showing off that talent they often forget to tell a good story. John Irving never forgets this.

—originally published in Seattle Weekly

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard