Julia Glass is no stranger to the male narrative voice. In her debut novel, THREE JUNES, she made the bold (and unusual) choice to write from the point of view of two different prominent male characters. Now, in her fourth novel, Glass once again explores family dynamics, political action and social class through the lens of a fascinating assortment of male characters of strikingly different generations and backgrounds.
At the center of the story, not surprisingly, is the widower of the book's title, Percy Darling, recently retired from his career as a librarian at Harvard's Widener Library. He's been a widower far longer than he was a husband; his beautiful, vivacious wife Poppy died in an accident when she was still a young woman. Since then, Percy successfully finished the job of raising the couple's two daughters and is keeping up their rambling lakeside house in a prosperous Boston suburb. Percy has recently taken up a retirement fitness regimen, but other than this minor lifestyle change, he's pretty sure his life will continue in its safe, predictable, respectable pattern for the rest of his days.
That is, until a persistent businesswoman convinces Percy that his barn, unused since Poppy's death (it was formerly her dance studio), would be the perfect location for the progressive Elves & Fairies preschool. Conveniently, the proprietress also promises Percy's wayward elder daughter, Clover, a job at the preschool. Soon the formerly staid Darling property is filled with the sights and sounds of small children at play; there's even a magnificent tree house built around one of the stately old trees on the property.
What's more, Percy, who thought he was done with romance after Poppy's death, is falling hard for Sarah, the mother of one of the preschool children. Sarah is proud, stubborn and independent --- traits that sometimes clash with Percy's old-fashioned approach to life and love. But Percy soon loves her as fiercely as he adores his own daughters, whose lives, it turns out, are not as settled as he'd always imagined them to be.
In other sections, Glass writes from the point of view of Ira, the sole male teacher at Elves & Fairies; of Robert, Percy's grandson, a student at Harvard who's dealing with political pressures, scholastic expectations and his first romance; and of Celestino, a Guatemalan immigrant who has returned to Boston to gain some dignity --- and recapture his own lost love. Meanwhile, a mysterious group of eco-terrorists is wreaking havoc on what they view as the greed and wastefulness of Boston's affluent suburbs, casting light on issues of class and privilege that Percy would probably view as crass and unrefined.
Glass's novels feel a bit like looking out a tiny attic window onto a broad vista. At first, they seem like small domestic dramas, but they open up to consider expansive topics that might have seemed far outside their scope. As she explores connections both familiar and unexpected, Glass also regards such wide-ranging subjects as sub/urban geography, intergenerational communication, family expectations, immigration reform and social class. At times, the interpersonal connections can seem overly convenient --- when Clover needs a divorce lawyer, Ira's partner happens to be one; when Sarah has a health scare, Percy's younger daughter happens to be a specialist --- but for the most part, the patterns Glass creates between and among her characters operate beautifully and realistically.
Although Percy's old-fashioned, straitlaced narration can seem self-conscious at times, THE WIDOWER'S TALE is nonetheless a convincing portrait of a man who learns that age 70 is not too late to start over and make changes. Not too late at all.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 7, 2011
The Widower’s Tale