Katherine Bailey on Books  
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Current Books The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass

Getting in shape to die.

Julia Glass nudges her protagonist into the spotlight at the very beginning of The Widower’s Tale. An erudite, often grouchy 70-year-old widower with the attention-getting name of Percy Darling struggles through his daily jog. When a teen-ager gives him the thumbs up, Percy responds with the novel’s opening line, “Thank you, I’m getting in shape to die.” Jogging in place, Percy informs the youth, “I have it on good authority that dying is hard work, requiring diligence, stamina and fortitude. Which I intend to maintain in ample supply until the moment of truth arrives.” Percy stands firmly in the “God-is-for-sissies” camp.

A widower for decades, Percy has recently retired from Harvard’s Widener Library where he served with distinction as the reference liaison to the University’s literature and language departments. For his entire adult life he has lived near Matlock, a bucolic Massachusetts village not far from Boston. His property includes a run-down house and barn built in 1757 and a pond, a small splash of water forever tainted by premature death. His wife, Poppy, drowned there more than 30 years ago. Glass skillfully plants questions in our minds about the circumstances of Poppy’s death.

Early in the novel we learn that over the years Percy has tortured himself wondering what he might have done “to alter whatever simple chain of events had led to Poppy’s drowning in the pond.”

For his retirement Percy had envisioned carefree days of reading: “I would revel in the pages of one obscurely significant novel after another, abandoning the world of gigabytes and hard drives,” he says. But it turns out that he is not without responsibilities. He is the father of two daughters in their mid-forties. Younger daughter, Trudy, is an esteemed, hard-working oncologist, happily married and the mother of Robert, a Harvard pre-med student. Robert plays a pivotal role in the book. Older daughter, Clover, has pretty much “made a wreck of her life,” and Percy resents the fact that on top of that she expects him to bail her out.

Percy shares with us an aspect of the reality of spousal loss: “The years I spent with Poppy amount to less than half of the time I have known our daughters, and yet the truth is that Poppy abides with me still, inside my head, speaking to me, far more than do Trudy or Clover.”

With nuance Glass sketches Clover’s back story. She points out that though Clover has had a more varied life than her younger sister Trudy, “that variety reflected a series of false starts, not bold adventures.” And she notes the younger Clover’s proclivity for dating men with no fixed ambitions.

Out of the blue Clover arrives on Percy’s doorstep and announces that she has taken “a sabbatical” from marriage and motherhood. She has left her husband and her children, ages 12 and nine, in New York. Though mortified by the melodrama, Percy treats his daughter with kindness, in part because he feels responsible for her having to grow up without her mother.

Meanwhile, Elves and Fairies, Matlock’s renowned progressive nursery school, finds itself without a building and asks Percy for the use of the capacious loft in his barn. Percy perceives in the request an opportunity to do something for his “confused and rootless” daughter. In short, he leases his barn to Elves and Fairies in exchange for a position as the school’s assistant director for Clover. Clover eagerly accepts the offer. “I agreed,” Percy remarks, “to keep the rent low as long as Clover hung onto the job.”

The bargain, for Percy, did not come without emotional angst. It was difficult for him to relinquish the space where Poppy’s spirit still reigned supreme. During her life, the barn’s loft had been Poppy’s ballet studio – a pristine room encased in mirrors and containing a polished wooden barre running against one wall. For years after her drowning Percy heard music coming from the studio…”and sometimes Poppy’s voice, strident or praising or keeping time in song. Poppy taught her lessons – always sold out and often with waiting lists – until the day she died.”

Whenever Clover’s resemblance to her mother surfaces, Percy must grapple with deep-seated feelings: “I felt relief in the presence in the absence (that something of my wife remained) and absence in the presence (that my daughters would always remind me that their mother was gone). And the ugly sense that I held a bottomless debt of repentance: for even while I’d maintained my solitude, had never come close to marrying again in 32 years since my wife’s death, still that solitude had been ample with pleasure.”

At intervals Percy is moved to private tears from the realization that Clover does not blame him for her mother’s death or for the mistakes he made trying to be both parents in one. Poppy, he knew, would have handled their older daughter differently; she would have “steered Clover to steadier ground.”

Extensive remodeling on the loft space proves costly but the expense is easily met by the willing and affluent parents of Elves and Fairies students. (Tuition for needy students is discreetly paid by Matlock’s rich movers and shakers.) Percy has, in fact, come to regret Matlock’s socio-economic transformation, a change that seemed to have taken place gradually over a period of years. When he and Poppy bought their property almost half a century ago, Matlock was just another farm town. Now, to Percy’s dismay, it has become an enclave for the rich – xenophobic couples threatened by anyone or anything foreign to them. He fumes in private as he mentally disparages his wealthy neighbors. He pictures himself as a “lone, graying knight in his drafty castle surrounded on all sides by Philistines of a novel variety – well schooled, well nourished, well informed…and sure of the ergonomic traction with which their stylishly countrified shoes met the ground.”

Fairies School builds a three-story tree house in a tangled beech growing under Percy’s bedroom window. No longer does he awaken to birdsong, but to pounding hammers. The school has enlisted volunteers for the project, and the three young men who construct the maze of platforms, ladders and guard rails become central to the novel. Each is a fully developed character, and each has a consequential relationship with Percy. Robert is Percy’s grandson and clearly the apple of his eye. Ira, who is gay, is a teacher at the preschool whom Glass endows with a compellingly sensitive inner life. And finally, Celestino is a Guatemalan gardener who works for Percy’s neighbor. Skillfully, Glass unfolds her novel’s plot through the perspectives of Percy and these three men. As in her previous works of fiction she excels at inhabiting the psyches of the opposite sex.

In the book’s first chapter Percy meets Sarah, an attractive, middle-aged single mother of four-year-old Rico whom she adopted in Mexico. Percy and Sarah hit it off immediately. Unfailingly his imperious humor prompts her to gales of laughter, and despite the age difference (18 years) they share the same sensibilities. As they see more of each other Percy tells us that she triggered in him a long-lost feeling of serenity, a feeling, at last, of self-esteem. She resurrected his sexuality. Percy relates: “Sarah makes me feel younger. The lovemaking, yes, but in equal part the conversations and jests we shared, the increase in laughter alone.”

Perhaps most significantly Sarah skewed Percy’s perception of Poppy’s place in his life: “I knew exactly where I stood on the meandering road of my life…in this scheme, Poppy now stood so much farther behind me, genuinely lost to me once and for all, out of sight beyond a dozen bends on the road.”

Like Sarah, Percy’s grandson Robert is an affecting character. Every word Glass puts in his mouth is authentic undergraduate Ivy League lingo. We learn that Robert, despite his irreverent humor, has always been an achiever with no apparent need to rebel. But now, due largely to the influence of his charismatic Guatemalan roommate, he joins the underground group known as DOGS (denounce our greedy society). Though he himself comes from a privileged family, Robert is convinced that the rich live off the backs of the poor. Under cover of darkness the group commits meticulously-planned acts of vandalism on the homes and properties of Matlock’s ostensibly rich. However, he agonizes over his participation. Glass relates: “Though Robert had begun to feel the exhilaration of acting out and getting away with the carefully choreographed mayhem, he was only semi-persuaded that wrecking havoc on rich assholes’ lives would make a constructive difference in the way rich assholes spent their money.”

Apart from a credible and engrossing plot filled with suspense and peopled by realistic, sympathetic characters, The Widower’s Tale features vibrant, energetic prose through which delightful metaphors gleam. For example, Glass writes of Clover’s former husband, “[his] composure rivals that of Mt. Rushmore.”

In addition, powerful truths underpin the plot, namely: loss of a spouse or a parent is often the defining factor in a person’s life; single-parents do succeed in raising their offspring; too many humans live within a protective bubble of entitlement; our commitment must now be to global patriotism; and youthful acts carry permanent consequences.

Sprinkled through the book are insights on a variety of topics both light and heavy. In conjuring Clover, Glass writes: “Clover had always been one of those spritelike girls who simply never stop being girls… It’s the girlishness that gets them what they need: everything except true independence, or what we call maturity.”

And the indomitable Percy has something memorable to say about books: “My love of books is a love of what they contain; they hold knowledge as a pitcher holds water, as a dress contains the mystery of a woman’s exquisite body. Their physicality matters – do not speak to me of storing books as bytes…”