Seventy-year-old Percy Darling is your prototypical New England curmudgeon. His wife having died when she was in her 30s, he’s lived alone since his two daughters moved out. He’s adapted to modern life enough to use e-mail to communicate with his daughters and his eldest grandson, but he’s mostly an old-fashioned guy, prone to grumbling about “kids today” even as he opens the barn in his backyard to a progressive preschool called “Elves and Fairies.”
The preschool is the pet project of his flighty younger daughter, Clover, who has become friends with the owner and convinced her father to provide this new space for the popular school. Percy is inclined to be kind to fragile Clover, who has been struggling to find stability ever since she suddenly left her husband and two children for no clear reason that Percy can discern. Percy’s older daughter, Trudy, needs less help. A highly successful oncologist, she is the picture of good sense and efficiency. Her son, Robert, seems poised to follow in her footsteps. He’s studying biology at Harvard, but he’s also taking an interest in environmental issues and in Latin America, possibly due to the influence of Turo, his Guatemalan roommate who is active in a radical environmental movement he calls “the underground.”
That’s Percy’s family in a nutshell. But it’s only a tiny piece of the story. Percy is the subject—and the first-person narrator—of roughly one-fourth of Julia Glass’s new book. Several chapters leave Percy and focus on Robert. These chapters, told in the third person, show Percy from a different perspective, and they offer new information on Percy’s family.
Other chapters leave Percy’s family almost entirely, focusing on characters who are only tangentially related to Percy and Robert. The undocumented worker Celestino, who takes care of Percy’s neighbor’s yard, gets some attention. We learn how Celestino came to Massachusetts from Guatemala and about his dreams and fears for the future. The remaining third-person chapters focus on Ira, a preschool teacher who has come to Elves and Fairies after being forced to leave his previous school under a cloud of suspicion brought on by a homophobic parent.
From the beginning of A Widower’s Tale, certain events seem obvious and inevitable. A book about a curmudgeonly widower is of course going to have some sort of heart-softening event, either an adorable child or an unexpected romance, or both! And when we learn early on that Robert will be writing a paper on immigration that will require him to interview an immigrant, his eventual choice of subject is no great surprise. And when Percy reads in the paper about environmentalist pranks, such as filling a brand-new Humvee with corn husks, we know who the culprit is likely to be.
However, to Glass’s credit, most of the predictable events happen in the first third of the book. We know a romance is likely, so she gives it to us right away. She doesn’t hide the identity of the eco-warriors, and she doesn’t play coy about Celestino and Robert’s eventual connection. Instead, she dispatches with all these obvious elements right at the start and dwells instead on where all these events lead. Sometimes events lead exactly where you might expect, but at other times, they don’t—sort of like life, really.
This was my first time reading Julia Glass, although she’s been on my radar since she won the National Book Award for The Three Junes in 2002. I picked up this book, releasing this week, at the American Library Association conference this summer. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading Glass. I liked her writing and her characters. Almost all the characters, but especially Percy, are well-drawn and interesting (but not all likable). For the most part, it isn’t particularly preachy, unless it’s preachy to show undocumented workers who are hard-working decent people or gay men in stable committed relationships. (I do not find that preachy, since I’ve encountered both in life, but people with views different from mine might argue that Glass is being preachy by accentuating the positive.) And certainly Glass shows how some causes popular with liberals can be taken to extremes, as is the case with the eco-warriors.
Although I enjoyed the book a lot, it’s not without problems. As you could see from my summary, it’s jam-packed with characters and ideas. In that summary, I only scratched the surface. The book is chock full of hot issues in American life today: There’s environmentalism, homosexuality, immigration, insurance, cancer, marriage, divorce, remarriage, single parenting, education, housing prices—even the raw milk movement gets a rather cheeky mention. The complex relationships between the characters and the issues that touch their lives demonstrate how connected all these ideas are, but the number of ideas gives the book an overstuffed feeling. All the elements are handled fairly effectively, but the novel lacks a unifying narrative to drive it forward. I think a leaner narrative would have been both more enjoyable and more effective.