2008: 150. A Widow for One Year

“One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk  bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking - it was coming from her parents’ bedroom.”

A Widow for One Year, John Irving

I haven’t read any Irving for ages, and while I thought I had heard somewhat mixed reviews of A Widow for One Year, I quite enjoyed it.  It was an enjoyable page turning novel, which is a rare enough find, and it avoided some of the most conscious ticks of Irving novels - there was no sign of EITHER a bear or a wrestler, which is nice.  Other ticks were still there, private school, athletics, the sex stuff and particularly the catastrophic accident which drives the plot - in this case a car accident in which two young boys are killed, which sets the whole story in motion.  The novel is divided in two parts, both of which are enjoyable, though they seemed very distinct - like they could have been two novels - one and its sequel, rather than a cohesive whole.*  The first is set in the 1950’s and concerns the aftermath of the accident - which takes takes place before the story starts.  It concerns the distraught parents, who have had another child in an unsuccessful attempt to rebuild their lives, living totally separate lives - the mother is subsumed by grief and ignores the child and the father is a serial adulterer and children’s book author who cares about the girl but isn’t much of a parent.  The father hires a young man to come for the summer ostensibly as a writer’s assistant, but really because he has a plan to set up his wife to have an affair with the young (like 16, young) man.  The first half of the novel lays out this what happens in the aftermath of this plan.  


The second half is about the grown up daughter, who has become a famous novelist, and how her life has turned out - her life without her mother (who ran off at the end of the first half), her latest novel, her marriage, her child, her (platonic) relationship with Eddie, the writer’s assistant who also is a novelist and who has never gotten over her mother.  The second half was interesting, but not as good as the first half - the first half is a strange if coherent whole and the second, while interesting, just doesn’t come together the way the first does.  The first part is a story - it has a beginning, middle and end, and the second is more like life - discursive incidents that end up making up a person’s existence.  Both parts are good, but they don’t really seem to gel - it doesn’t seem like Irving wrote it this way on purpose, and I really think it would work better as two short novels than as one.  But despite that criticism, I really enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it.


Date/Place Completed:  9/30/08; D.C.

Categories: Fiction; Commuting Book


*Hollywood agrees - they made a movie of this book, but only of the first half!! 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017