Hard to believe, but this year marks the 20th anniversary of The World According to Garp, a novel nearly everybody read, reread, talked about, and foisted on friends. (I know a guy who left hardcover copies on trains and in hotel rooms, to spread the good word.) John Irving’s slapstick tragedy about a famous writer and his bizarro extended family achieved the kind of cultural and psychic penetration that happens nowadays only with celebrity trials, Washington sex scandals, and $200 million disaster movies. But success on that grand a scale comes at a price, and while Irving has continued to produce good books, his career over the past two decades has often seemed like a manic attempt to top Garp. If novels like The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany have at times resembled his masterpiece in sheer energy, they’ve never matched it in scope, psychology, or wit. And Irving’s last novel, A Son of the Circus, was nothing but energy, a garish, flailing shambles.
Now, in A Widow for One Year, he’s returned to the world of Garp — the world of writers — to imagine the life and times of Ruth Cole, ”a well-respected literary novelist and an internationally best-selling author.” More restrained (thank goodness!) than his fiction of recent years, and as heartfelt as anything he’s done, Widow stands as one of Irving’s best novels and a worthy thematic sequel to his most famous creation.
We first meet Ruth in the summer of 1958, when she’s 4. Her father, Ted, a lazy but successful writer and illustrator of children’s books, spends most of his time seducing miserably unhappy Long Island housewives. Ruth’s mother, Marion, at 39 still ”one of the most beautiful women alive,” passes her solitary days at home studying the framed snapshots of her two dead sons that cover nearly every inch of wall space. (As teenagers, Thomas and Timothy Cole died in a car crash.) Consumed by grief and emotionally distant from her young daughter (”…if I let myself love Ruth…what will I do if something happens to her?”), Marion decides to abandon her family. Before she does, though, a 16-year-old prep school boy named Eddie O’Hare arrives from New Hampshire to work as Ted’s assistant. Smitten with (okay, aroused by) his employer’s wife, Eddie is amazed — as many readers might be as well — when Marion starts taking him to bed. Day after day. Sixty times, by Eddie’s count.
At summer’s end, Marion simply disappears, and it’s that one selfish (or maybe selfless) act of abandonment that determines the path her lover and daughter eventually follow. They grow up to become writers, Eddie doggedly penning younger man/older woman autobiographical novels and Ruth, with more acclaim, writing novels about the repercussions of making choices.
Except for Kurt Vonnegut, there’s probably not another major living American writer whose eccentricities are as flagrant, or as indelibly fixed, as those of John Irving. In novel after novel, here as in Garp, parents fail, lust is perilous, accidents happen, and ”the grief over lost children never dies.” And, here as in Garp, characters — no matter how old they grow — never quite shake off the awkwardness, innocence, or unflagging self-absorption of adolescence. (You sometimes wish they would, though.) A combination of vaudeville, romance, and sentimentality, A Widow for One Year is never entirely convincing, but like a warm bath, it’s a great pleasure to immerse yourself in. A-