NORA WEBSTER, the latest from Colm Tóibín --- that purveyor of Irish contemporary myth --- is a sad book. I’m just letting you know up front that there is a lot going on in this novel, though much of it is sad. I want you to be prepared.
That doesn’t mean this story of a mother who is suddenly widowed with children in various stages of development, grieving her long-time spouse and looking at an unstable economic future doesn’t have moments of remarkable whimsy and delight woven into its tapestry of loss and upheaval. Tóibín expertly builds a multi-dimensional picture of a life in the course of reinventing itself --- and Nora becomes our mother, our aunt, our next-door neighbor, our friend. His expert balancing of all the things that Nora is now confronted with gives us the sense that this is a person we know, and know well.
"You will take this book off your shelf and read it again and again, savoring its many shining moments. Inspirational without being mushy, beautifully written and well-constructed, NORA WEBSTER is Tóibín at the height of his powers."
Nora is 40. Her great love, Maurice, her husband of so many years, leaves her with a family of four. The two older girls are starting to make their way in the world-at-large, and the two boys are living at home, requiring a lot of energy and time. She is stuck in a tiny Irish town where everyone knows not only your name but everything you’ve ever done or might do. This stifling atmosphere works only to make her dire situation that much more miserable. The boys are having a rough time, but Nora doesn’t really understand the depth of their grieving. She sells the summer cottage at the shore where the family had its most wonderful memories over many years. She loses her entire life to his death and must find a way to come back strong…and soon.
Nora has to suffer the pity and scorn of those around her, including her aunt Josie, who was a great help during Maurice’s illness but now has other things to attend to. She finds work, and her life becomes even more complicated. New people come into her life and fight for her attention with the folks she has known for a long time, all of whom have a specific idea about what they think she should be doing. Nora dreams of moving to Dublin with the boys. Will she do it?
Nora Webster is a beautiful heroine --- a good, kind, striving woman who only wants the best for herself, her family and the world. The obstacles put in her place, while she is at the lowest point in her life thus far, would undo anyone less committed. But Nora is a mythic Irish icon --- the dedicated humanist who knows that life is worth living and wants to be a part of as much of it as she can be. She has inherited a strength from the land of her birth, a resiliency that comes to her aid again and again, just as we think she may sink into despair for good.
Doom is at every turn for Nora. Like Joyce without all the wordplay, Tóibín manages to take every small moment and hold it up under a light that reveals remarkable emotional depths. Everything that happens to Nora is important --- every moment is key, every word uttered meaningful and resonant. The author finds the haunting struggles in the everyday, and the heroism in facing a change you didn’t ask for and making the most of the situation.
NORA WEBSTER is a story of a modern Odysseus, a woman of unbearable, admirable, crazy determination. The literary landscape will welcome her as it did Scout Finch, Elizabeth Bennett or Olive Kitteredge --- women of various ages who take the worst the world has to offer and turn it into solid gold. Tóibín has mined 24 carats here. You will take this book off your shelf and read it again and again, savoring its many shining moments. Inspirational without being mushy, beautifully written and well-constructed, NORA WEBSTER is Tóibín at the height of his powers. It’s a great winter read --- fire in the fireplace and hot cup of tea on the table beside you not included.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 24, 2014
- Publication Date: June 2, 2015
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Scribner
- ISBN-10: 1439170932
- ISBN-13: 9781439170939