"The Widower's Tale" by Julia Glass

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All hail the retired, erudite, put-upon, devoted Percival Darling, hero of Julia Glass’s “The Widower’s Tale.” He endures the frankness, foibles, and utter foolishness foisted upon him by friends and family. Ms. Glass presents us a cornucopia of au courant issues through this exceptional character’s thoughts and statements: homophobia, gentrification, immigration reform, environmental awareness, even the vicissitudes of health care. I noticed all the issues and how current they were, but given the engrossing cast of characters here, the extravagant plot, and the thoroughly engaging prose, I didn’t mind. More precisely, I enjoyed this confection thoroughly.

Percy Darling has lived in the same ancient house in a leafy Boston suburb for nearly five decades. Only a small fraction of that time was he blessed by the presence of his beloved wife Poppy, who he loses when his two daughters are in the eighth and ninth grades. Alone, Percy raises his daughters, pursues to retirement his career at Harvard’s Widener Library, and goes his own way in terms of interacting with the world. In a very beautiful sustained feat of realistic and sympathetic character-drawing, Percy flaunts his erudition and his wit, and doesn’t pay much attention to people’s reaction. His progress through the thicket of this plot molds him into someone a little more guarded in his speech. He needs the reformation, but it doesn’t stop him from striving to help his loved ones.

The story opens with the refurbishing of the barn behind Percy’s home and its conversion to a nursery school for the children of the village’s elite. For Percy, this is a very painful process and it presages changes even more painful. We meet teachers and administrators, Percy’s grandson who attends Harvard, his daughter the prominent oncologist, his other, far-less-organized daughter, and a careless and charismatic ecoterrorist whose prankish tricks lead to the very surprising denouement. Percy starts to date again, at age 70, but this sweet excitement turns grim as events Percy couldn’t predict nor particularly deserve crash into his retired life. The grandson, Percy’s closest friend in the world, becomes unwittingly entangled in criminal acts, and his “problem” daughter faces yet another crisis and yet another career change. Ms. Glass has plotted the novel tightly, and we see the elegance of the intricate interactions.

Through all this, Ms. Glass devotes her considerable skill to drawing us into Percy’s circle, and we wind up wanting what’s best for him. She renders certain chapters in Percy’s first person, making this book truly his tale. I was non-plussed by the inclusion of quite so many of today’s hot issues; they balance well with the plot and characters, but I would have wished for a more subservient role. I think political issues should always rank below characterization, structure, and theme, as they do in Ms. Glass’s previous efforts which I have read (“Three Junes” and “The Whole World Over”). But that’s just me. Judge accordingly for your own taste.

I would be very hard-pressed to name an author publishing today who produces more realistic, or simultaneously, more sympathetic, characters. In itself, that is quite an unlikely achievement. And it says all you need to know about Julia Glass. While I may not rank this as her best work, I will remember it, and appreciate having spent time with it.
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