Updated: Jul 16
15 July 2022
A Widow for One Year by John Irving – Review
Ok. Just finished A Widow for One Year by John Irving…and am compelled to do my thoughts. Especially since I despised Owen Meany so completely.
First, let me say a word about Meany: I despised it for one reason more than others – it seemed forced. Before I began that book, I’d just read an article that compared the genius of King to Irving, and the crux of the comparison fell to their writing methods. King tends to create his characters and then, once on page, they interact with one another in a way that he could not have predicted. When King begins writing a story, he has no anticipation or expectation as to the way it will play out – let alone how it will conclude. Irving works in literally the opposite manner: he chooses an ending, then develops characters and plot to reach that goal. In Meany, with the freaking hedgehog (or porcupine or armadillo) and the missing hands and the sacrificial imagery throughout, it seemed absolutely forced, to me, to introduce this whole group of children out of nowhere in the end simply to place Meany in a situation where he’d sacrifice himself (or his hands) for the sake of a pile of refugee children. Like – how did we get here, Irving? This novel was never about refugees! Then there’s the added problem of the unreliable and terribly unlikeable narrator. Who was that guy? What sort of mental/processing disability did he have that he never married? Never lived on his own? Wound up living with a bunch of nuns? Had no friends? I did not like the narrator of that story – not from the beginning, when it was impossible not to question his ethics. I don’t even remember his name; only that I disliked being inside his head for 500 pages.
A Widow for One Year was better insofar as it was written in some kind of shifting third-person omniscient. Like – it felt as though narrative consciousness faded in from one character and then out to another. This means that the voice was not trapped in one person the way Meany’s was. It was OK if I didn’t like Ted Cole or Eddie O’Hare; I didn’t have to be either of them for any significant period of time.
However, this leaves us (readers) with the question: whose story is this? I think it’s Ruth’s, although it might be in equal parts Eddie’s. Maybe it’s Ruth’s and Eddie’s, but we do achieve snapshots into Marion’s, Ted’s, Harry’s, and even – briefly – Hannah’s perspectives. No less, I think it’s Ruth’s and Eddie’s stories, how Ruth and Eddie related to Marion, in particular. Ok, so in that sense, I liked this story better than Meany: the narrators was more relatable, or shifting, or whatever.
As for the details and ending, it felt less forced than Meany, but it was still forced. It’s the details, man. Obviously, Irving carries those details to the end for a reason – but it kills me how guilelessly he does so. It seems so pedestrian. He ain’t no J.K.Rowling in his ability to remember a thing; no. He’s chosen specific details to carry forward – intentionally – so that he can tie it all together. And that does bother me because it feels so inorganic. Rowling does it seamlessly – almost magically. She does it because she remembers the details, not because she’s chosen the details to remember. Can you see the difference, here? One is more intentional and premeditated – that is to say, forced – than the other. It’s a subtle difference, but it plays out on a macro level, making the entire novel feel unnatural. Fine. Fine. Ok. On to my own thoughts, now, apart from these related to Meany.
Ethical Sluttery – and its overt acceptability
I’m not sure why I’m starting here. I’m not convinced I care so much. But maybe that leaves the things I care more about for later, and I’m good with that.
So this entire novel is founded upon a sort of shock-value entertainment concept. There’s the idea that Ted Cole is a male slut who cannot sleep with a woman more than a few times, to start. It would be one thing if this was a dirty little secret, yet it’s not. Marion knows. Ruth knows. Hannah knows. Eddie knows. They all know! And they act like – sure that’s fine. I mean, not that it’s fine, but that it’s acceptable. Or maybe it’s just accepted, whether or not it is acceptable. Perhaps this is because he is the breadwinner of that family, as a children’s lit icon. It doesn’t matter, it makes me cringe. The man brings new younger widows/divorcees/unhappily-wed women into his bed, into his studio, just so that he can debase and demoralize them over time. It’s like he’s a soul-sucker. Perhaps I’d be OK with his sexual pursuits if that was what they boiled down to; yet, they are more than sexual predation. They are sexual destruction – no, they are human destruction. He does not want sex with them. He wants to morally corrupt them to their cores by asking them to pose clothed, then nude, then nuder, and then in their most self-abased state, until they have no dignity left. What he does is a sick, consensual moral rape that makes me ill.
Again, I’ll say, that would be all well and good if it happened just once, or if it was a dirty unspoken secret. It’s just not. Marion knows it happens. She does nothing about it, says nothing about it. Later, Ruth does the same. It’s not that they could’ve changed Ted Cole…and they must have sensed that. But Ted Cole’s lack of guilt/shame in association with these behaviors is astounding. Even when attempting to escape Vaughan, he is entirely without remorse; never does he suspect that he deserved to be chased up the street – although he did.
Where is Ted Cole’s conscience? This bothers me. Everyone I know who acts abysmally, not in the same way as Ted Cole, but in similar ways, creates some kind of shadow-self to conceal that guilt. To be in denial of it. Yet how could he? His culpability is blatant, yet his guilt/conscience is altogether absent.
Why does this bother me so much? It imposes upon my willing suspension of disbelief. In this world, I walk around praying – dying – to believe in people’s inherent goodness. Ted Cole is only good insofar as he cared for Ruth. That’s it! An absent conscience – I know this is a thing. I believe it must be a thing in this world. But I have reserved this space in my head – this existence – for the mentally ill, for serial killers, not for a fully-functioning human adult who pays his bills attends book signings, and etc. Thus, I am hesitant to willfully believe in it.
One more point here before I move on: what the hell is with Eddie’s penchant to verbal diarrhea the truth?! It’s like he has no capacity to place himself in his listener’s shoes before he mouths off…of course, my entire life I’ve been guilty of the same, so maybe this is why it bothers me so. But Eddie! OMG! Stopper your pie-hole!
There is so much valuable information in this book about Amsterdam’s red-light district that my Spidey-Radar is pinging; I need to incorporate this information into my current story. It’s killer and critical. There’s an “old church” in there, deep in the belly of the beast, that would give my mom reason to drag BK and me down there. He writes this:
And it was awkward for Ruth when Amanda Merton asked if she could take Graham to see the Oude Kerk. (Amsterdam’s oldest church, which is thought to have been built in about 1300, is situated in the middle of the red-light district.) Amanda had read in a guidebook that the climb to the top of the Oude Kerk tower was recommended for children – the tower afforded a splendid view of the city. (485)
Because, you see, I don’t remember why mom took BK and me into the red-light district; I only remember that she did. This is motive, and I’m going to use it because I do remember my first smell of weed, as we passed a bar/pub in that area – and perhaps we even dipped in to buy souvenirs next door. This is good and I will use it.
Toxic Guilt/Forgiveness – ironically associated with Christianity
I do love that Irving imposes this widow-for-one-year into the plot to carry a message about toxic expectations of forgiveness. This widow shows up to Ruth’s wedding after her book about a widow and accuses her of “not knowing what it’s like to be a widow.” The woman claims she was not herself when she assaulted Ruth, saying she’d be a widow for the rest of her life – laying that at Ruth’s feet as though it were Ruth’s fault.
But then they become Christians and this widow – Muriel – demands that Ruth forgive her for what she said back when she was in mourning.
This haughty demand for forgiveness struck home for me: it felt precisely like what a family member was asking of me a few months back. It’s as though simply because someone demands forgiveness, one is obligated to provide it – and that’s not the case at all! When used that way, forgiveness becomes a twofold weapon: it simultaneously attempts to tether someone to guilt as it serves the one demanding the apology an “out” from their own guilty conscience. That was convoluted, and I’m not sure I can say it any better except to say that it becomes self-serving.
The widow demands Ruth to forgive her because she cannot cope with the guilt she carries for hurting Ruth. Well – guess what. That’s not Ruth’s problem! To give Muriel forgiveness in that moment serves only Muriel. Ruth had carried the pain of Muriel’s attack for years. Now, Muriel shows up demanding forgiveness for what she’s done? How is that not adding insult to injury? Where are the reparations for that injury?
I don’t blame Ruth for withholding her forgiveness; nor, at this point, do I blame myself for my own uncertainty about forgiving mom. I don’t know what forgiving mom looks like. I can’t envision it at all. How does it take shape in my heart? In my head? I just don’t know…it’s such a wishy-washy thing, forgiveness – so ephemeral, intangible, uncertain. How do I know once I’ve accomplished it – and should I try to accomplish it, and if I do try to accomplish it, how do I go about it?
Is it even necessary?
The way I see it, forgiveness is only necessary to me insofar as it might release me from that shame tethering mom instilled within me via my upbringing. It’s as much a forgiveness of her as it would be a forgiveness of me and all of my undeveloped trauma selves.
Here’s the excerpt:
“I don’t forgive you,” Ruth told her. “What you said to me was hateful and cruel and untrue.”
“I don’t forgive you for not forgiving me!” Muriel Reardon cried out, an un-Christian venom in her voice. (484)
Can we talk for just a moment about the myriad times Irving implies that great writing cannot stem from real life events? There’s this sneering down his nose about Eddie O’Hare’s inability to write a novel that isn’t true to the love-life he experienced when he was 16. But there’s more than that, too. There’s the backhanded comments about Ruth’s and Marion’s novels, implying quite the same.
“For her part, Hannah both looked up to Ruth and constantly criticized her. Hannah respected Ruth’s success while at the same time she reduced Ruth’s novels to a form of nonfiction.” (209)
“And maybe it was fair; if a book was any good, it was a slap in the face to someone” (312).
“Ruth Cole’s credo amounted to a war against the roman à clef, a put-down of the autobiographical novel, which now made her feel ashamed because she knew she was getting ready to write her most autobiographical novel to date.” (351)
“He read novels because he found in them the best descriptions of human nature. The novelists Harry favored never suggested that even the worst human behavior was alterable. They might morally disapprove of this or that character, but novelists were not world-changers; they were just storytellers with better-than-average stories to tell, and the good ones told stories about believable characters. The novels Harry loved were complexly interwoven stories about real people.
He liked social realism, but not if the writer was without any imagination – not if the story wasn’t enough of a story to keep him guessing about what was going to happen next.” (423)
As I look at the excerpts I highlighted for myself here, together, all on one page, side-by-side, I actually see a metamorphosis over the course of the book in Irving’s tone surrounding autobiography. From the first, Ruth was opposed to Hannah’s claim that each of her novels involved a Ruth character and a Hannah character who were destined to have a rocky friendship – portraying their real-life friendship in fictional terms. But toward the end, Ruth admits that she’s about to write something she experienced in real life (as she crouched in the prostitute’s closet and witnessed a murder). Then, Harry’s character gently guides us – with much love – toward the opposite end of that spectrum: he loves literary realism. In fact, he takes that even further: he loves creative nonfiction! It would not surprise me if Dostoyevsky ranked up there among his favorites, along with that true crime stuff.
I guess, in that sense, we see that initially, I fell into a false biographical criticism, assuming that what Irving wrote was what he believed. The truth is, we don’t know what Irving believes at all. All we know is that he is good at writing fiction novels that entertain. We cannot even speculate which, how many, if any, of his characters and events are based on real-life people and circumstances. What I can assume, if anything, based on these excerpts, is that Irving has an open mind about whatever he believes.
What about how unhealthy prolonged grief can be?
Another theme that struck me throughout this novel was Marion Cole’s penchant to carry her grief far too long and too deeply. Of course, we cannot be certain that her life away from Ruth and Eddie (and Ted) was entirely devoid of, well, life. However, she does imply that she never enjoyed sex with other men – and maybe even that she avoided it. To me, this is telling: Marion never truly lived after Timothy and Thomas died.
I can see mourning those two boys intensely for four years. Frankly, I can see mourning them intensely for life, carrying that burden with you wherever you go and whatever you do. What I cannot forgive Marion for is essentially what Ruth voices, here:
“And if Eddie was obsessed with Marion’s state of mind – or what he could fathom of it from McDermid, Retired – Ruth had read her mother’s fourth novel with impatience and disdain. (There is a point when sorrow becomes self-indulgent, she thought.)” (459)
I keep saying this and saying it: it’s not about what befalls you in this life, it’s about how you handle it. Life is pain. Life is suffering. That is one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. To suffer is unavoidable.
As exemplified in the Widow, Muriel, we can take our grief too far. What is too far? Too far is when it impedes our ability to continue to live fully, experience beauty, love others.
Of course, we must feel our grief. We must submit to it. To avoid doing so would be to quash that emotion, to stifle it, to make ourselves emotionally and physically ill in denying it. So is Irving saying that there is a timestamp on acceptable grief? That that timestamp is one year? Beyond a year, it expires? Time to begin living again? Time to love again?
It’s interesting to me, here, that Ruth deems herself so much luckier than her mother:
“Ruth knew she’d been lucky. My next book should be about fortune, she thought: about how fortune and misfortune were unequally distributed; and in the seemingly random pattern of colliding events – the people we meet, when we meet them, and if or when these important people might chance to meet someone else. Ruth had only a little misfortune. Why was it that her mother had had such a lot?” (515)
I do not agree with Ruth at all; her grief should never be compared to her mother’s insofar as grief is not comparable. Pain and suffering are not comparable. Everyone is entitled to their own unique experience of suffering.
On the other hand, I think that Ruth witnessed her own fair share of grief. Her mother abandoned her. She grew up with ghosts. Her father committed suicide. Her husband died. How is this “only a little misfortune” compared to Marion’s? They are both unfortunate; the difference lies in Ruth’s capacity to cope with the suffering!! Ruth never accepted defeat. Despite each blow, she kept moving forward, instead of stagnating, the way Marion did! The very fact that Ruth addresses her misfortune/suffering in this paragraph with gratitude instead of defeat – that is the key to living a life of contentment. That is the key to living a life worthy of a novel.
It was entertaining. A touch sad.
I liked it better than Meany; oftentimes, Meany launched into side stories that felt so superfluous to the plot that I could not drum up the will to follow Irving down that rabbit hole…but this book did less of that. There were strange things, like the snarky old widow-for-one-year. Like – I’m trying so fucking hard to understand why Irving named his book after her. She was such a small part of the plot. What purpose did she really serve? Nevertheless…ok.
It was a decent read. It just didn’t do the same kind of whacked-out crescendo that most of King’s stories do.
I’m a King girl, all the way. I may read Cider House Rules or Garp, but as I now see/know Irving’s methods/patterns for writing, I anticipate that they will/may be entertaining, but will not likely startle or entrance the way that King generally does.
I think Irving is to King what C.S.Lewis was to Tolkien.
There, I said it.