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"The Widower's Tale," by Julia Glass

By Donna Rifkind
Sunday, September 19, 2010; BW10

THE WIDOWER'S TALE

By Julia Glass

Pantheon. 402 pp. $25.95

Julia Glass gets plenty of things right in her expansive fourth novel, but no feature is more successful than the book's artfully conjured milieu. In most cases, and especially in Glass's books, "milieu" means not just an environment but a prevailing mood. Here, that mood is giddy bewilderment. In a 2006 interview with NPR, Glass -- who won the 2002 National Book Award for her first novel, "Three Junes" -- said, "I see life as increasingly complex, vivid, colorful, crazy, chaotic, and that's the world I write about -- the world that I live in." This is certainly the world of the 70-year-old widower in Glass's latest tale, a Massachusetts retiree named, more whimsically than his Yankee uprightness might seem to suggest, Percy Darling.

"Colorful, crazy, chaotic": These are the hues of Percy's sunset years as he tries, and fails, to maintain some hint of stability while going about the business of filling his days in a "fashionably rural" Boston suburb called Matlock. (I kept waiting for some winking reference to the geriatric TV drama, but Glass has left this fictional town's moniker, maybe too subtly, alone.)

Percy has lived in Matlock for over four decades, raising two daughters in a 250-year-old house that's of keen interest to the local historic preservation society. Until his recent retirement, he worked as a reference liaison at Harvard's Widener Library, devoting many years to solitary parenthood after his wife drowned in a grievous accident more than 30 years ago. Now in their 40s, his daughters have children of their own; the eldest grandchild, a winning Harvard sophomore named Robert, is Percy's much-loved favorite.

Except for his plain devotion to Robert, there's little that doesn't complicate Percy's daily life. His older daughter, who recently abandoned her husband and two young children in Brooklyn, has returned home to Matlock without much of a plan. In response, Percy has agreed to lease his huge, picturesque barn to a local preschool called Elves & Fairies, with the provision that his daughter be given a job there.

The hubbub surrounding the barn's renovation is discomfiting enough for Percy, who likes his quiet routines. Then even more unruliness arises in the shape of an unexpected new romance, the first he has allowed himself since his wife died. Percy's love affair with Sarah, an artist in her early 50s who's raising a young son by herself, plays out amid a tangle of small-town coincidences. Sarah's son attends the Elves & Fairies school, whose elaborate treehouse Percy's grandson Robert is helping to design. Things become knottier when Sarah, prompted by a health scare, consults a prominent Boston physician who just happens to be Percy's younger daughter.

Fortunately for readers, these complications feel natural. "Odd is the flavor of my life these days," muses Percy. "I've decided to roll with it." His story would be engaging enough on its own, but despite its Chaucerian title, there are many more stories here than just this widower's tale. In a typical Glass technique, the author weaves Percy's first-person narration in and out of several other alternating points of view. We hear from Robert, whose friendship with an impassioned environmental activist might compromise his brilliant Harvard career; Celestino, a Guatemalan gardener with a thorny past and a justifiable fear of deportation; and Ira, a teacher at Elves & Fairies who's conflicted about making a permanent commitment to his boyfriend, a high-end divorce lawyer.

Each strand of this narrative macramé is surprisingly supple, offering a convincing illusion of lives roundly lived. The effect is one of remarkable expansiveness, in which a rather modest small-town story is able to incorporate all kinds of contemporary social issues, including illegal immigration, eco-terrorism, health-care coverage, divorce and gay marriage.

As she did in "Three Junes" and "The Whole World Over" (but did not manage to do in her strangely constricted last book, "I See You Everywhere"), Glass propels her characters through a world that is sometimes dire but also sweetly normal and often joyful. It's the Glass-half-full version of Lorrie Moore's grief-stricken novel "A Gate at the Stairs." Nothing about this many-dimensioned illusion is easy to create, and some elements here are weaker than others -- notably the dialogue. The older characters sometimes lapse into "On Golden Pond" parodies, and Glass gets the lively, profane patter of college students entirely wrong.

Even so, it's wonderful to see Glass recover the unforced flow of her first two novels, a rhythm that convincingly imitates the shifting fortunes and allegiances of daily life. Once again, she's proved to be a master of milieu, an old French word that means "middle place" -- the place in which all her characters, young and old, continue to engage with the world and where she, a novelist in mid-career, keeps refining their stories.

Donna Rifkind is a writer in Los Angeles.

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