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A Book Review
by Joy Renee

 

A Widow For One Year
by John Irving
© 1998
Random House
537p

Genre: Literary fiction; family dynamics-fiction; parent/child relations-fiction; loss and grief-fiction;

This is vintage Irving, a mixture of the comic and the tragic, the ribald and the bizarre, the sardonic and the hilarious. The title character is Ruth Cole and we see her for the first time at age four through the eyes of 16 year old Eddie, an Exeter student hired as a writer’s assistant for the summer by her father who is a children’s book writer and illustrator. Little did he know that he was really hired as a pawn and a witness in the final weeks of a twenty-some year marriage. Ruth was conceived in an attempt to assuage the grief over the loss, in a gruesome accident, of her teen-aged brothers. On every wall of every room of her house hung framed and matted pictures of the lost boys. Every picture had a story and by the time Ruth was four she knew them all by heart. At the end of that summer her mother disappeared and she took all the pictures and their negatives with her. She left behind the bare hooks in the wall--and of course, the stories. Ruth and her father continued to tell each other the stories. Is that why Ruth became a renowned literary writer by her mid thirties?

When we next see her Eddie, now a writer himself, is introducing her at a promotional of her latest novel. She is thirty-something and embarking on a world tour to promote her novel and contemplating the next one as she is contemplating her life--her missing mother, her philandering father, a string of bad boyfriends, a betrayal by her best friend. This part of Irving’s story becomes a reflection on the relationship between life and literary invention as Ruth attempts to research the possibilities for a scene in which her character is humiliated by a degrading experience which prompts her to make a complete change in her life. Ruth’s research creates for herself the degrading humiliation which becomes the catalyst for drastic change in her own life. She takes a hiatus from writing to marry and have a child. When her son is three, his father dies. A year later Ruth publishes the novel based on that earlier research and as a result finds, or is found by, love for the first time.

An Irving novel is not just to read but to experience. The plot and characters are complex and perverse. Nothing ever works out like you expect. You are repeatedly startled and continuously challenged to reflect. And in the end you are satisfied that it had to have happened just like that. Irving’s stories teach you that a sense of humor is an essential survival skill for life.

© 1998 & 2004 by Joy Renee Davis

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