A Widow for One Year – John Irving

While writing my previous post, I realized that I had forgotten about a review of one of the best books of 2012. How that happened, I have no idea. I wrote it after finishing the book in November, and just forgot to post the review here. So here it is, before I forget again.

JI I have started this book twice. The first time I didn’t have the patience for it. I wasn’t prepared for the slow pace, the amount of detail, the careful crafting of the story, each word placed at the perfect spot. The second time, however, I tried to take the story as it was, step by step, to let it flow, to curb my impatience. And it worked. A few years after reading The World According to Garp, I let myself enter John Irving’s fantasy world once again.
The novel tells the story of the Cole family – even if by reading the blurb I was fooled thinking the story was about Ruth Cole, the daughter of Marion and Ted Cole, as the story went on it didn’t feel like that anymore. The story revolves around the Coles, but there are other characters whose lives are linked with this family. There is Eddie, an adolescent who dreams of becoming a writer and whose job as Ted’s assistant will open the door to a lifelong obsession with an older woman. There is Ruth Cole, whom Eddie sees as a 4 year old child and whom he meets decades later. There’s Marion Cole, Ruth’s mother, whose grief over the death of her teenage sons and her husband’s infidelities were things she could not endure. There is also a prostitute living in Amsterdam, a lonely cop, and Ruth’s best friend – all of them with their own tragedies and regrets, all of them with a key role to play in the story.

What I liked about this book was how the author told the story of each of the characters with such depth that each one of them stands apart as a fully formed protagonist. Because of this, the idea of one main character didn’t really apply, or at least that’s how it felt to me.
In spite of the slow pace of the story, there was not a moment of boredom. Irving’s characters are flawed, all of them, but that’s what makes them interesting and realistic. Their sorrows and regrets, their tragedies and joys, are played out one by one, and their live stories add a bitter sweet richness to the narrative.

This is probably the only book I’ve read in which four of the characters are writers. For some of them writing is a form of catharsis, and it is through this form of release that they are able to go on, to heal. There are stories within the story, and one of the perks of reading a book about writers is getting a glimpse into their writing habits and sources of inspiration. That was one of my favorite parts of the novel. If there’s something that felt a bit redundant was how many times the photos of Ruth’s dead brothers were mentioned. Perhaps it was necessary to mention them again and again, perhaps not. Nevertheless this is but a minor thing in an otherwise great narrative.

At times it felt like watching a battle, and the end felt like seeing the survivors. Not the winners necessarily, but those characters whose strength and will to go on made it to the final act. Violence, sex, murder and suicide walk side by side with grief, infidelity and a deep longing for love. Not everybody gets their happily ever after – but by the end of the book I wished they all did. A deeply moving narrative that managed to insinuate itself under my skin, where each character is made up of good and bad, and whose stories I was sad to leave behind.

*Read in November, 2012

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12 Responses to A Widow for One Year – John Irving

  1. Jenners says:

    I know what you mean about sometimes it takes a little while to get into a book — you have to settle in and then just let go and get into the world of the book.

    • Delia says:

      Yes, it takes a while, especially when you’re not used to this kind of novel, where everything builds up slowly, but I believe it’s also a question of timing. You have to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on it – the funny thing is that a friend of mine lend this to me and it took me 6 months before I finally got to read it. Now I have 2 other books from him and he’s already asking me if I started reading any of them. 🙂

  2. Elisa says:

    I read this a long time ago and remember loving it, but can’t much remember the story! I mostly remember that some of them went to amsterdam and I think lived near a beach. Funny. Oh well.
    Lovely review – makes me want to read it again!

    • Delia says:

      You remember correctly, Amsterdam is one of the cities in the story and something very important happened there. Important for Ruth, that is.
      The beach, now that one I don’t remember either…

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    Great commentary Delia. I have not read Irving but his stuff sounds good.

    Your point about the book eing slow plotted but intensely interesting is a good one. I find that a story does not need to be plot driven to be interesting. As long as something else is there such as good characters, great writing, an interesting theme, etc., a book can easily hold ones attention.

    • Delia says:

      Some people prefer to read plot driven novels, others care more about the writing, and I’m sure there are more criteria to choose from. But like you said, if the book is interesting enough, that’s all that matters. Perhaps I was too used to books where something happened all the time and fast. It’s difficult to try and slow down and see where the story takes you.
      I’d like to read more of Irving’s novels. Personally I prefer this one over “The World According to Garp”.

  4. Vishy says:

    Nice review, Delia! Glad to know that you did not give up on the book after you discovered it was slow-going and gave it a try again and ended up loving it. It is interesting that many of the main characters are writers and the book had multiple main protagonists. It is also interesting to know that though the book is slow-paced, there is not a moment of bordom. I will look for this book in the library. Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Delia says:

      I’m glad I didn’t give up on it, Vishy, but if I didn’t have to return it I doubt I would have read it soon. 🙂
      I think you would like it too.

  5. TBM says:

    For me, sometimes I have to set a book aside if I can’t get into it at first. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes. I do enjoy novels that are character studies. This one may work for me. I haven’t read anything by him yet. Hopefully the library has some of his works.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I’ve always meant to read all of Irving’s work but have never even managed to read one. This one sounds interesting and maybe it is a good place to start?

    • Delia says:

      Definitely a good book to start with, Kathleen. I hope you like slow paced novels, otherwise this might be a little challenging to go through, especially at first.

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