John Irving: A Widow for One Year (review)

0552146684.02.LZZZZZZZ‘That Ruth Cole would grow up to be that rare combination of a well-respected literary novelist and an internationally best-selling author is not as remarkable as the fact that she managed to grow up at all.’ (p. 21)
Out of my five favorite authors – Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Terry Pratchett, Haruki Murakami and John Irving – there’s one author who never disappoints. King and Oates write so many books that there’s bound to be some misses among them. Murakami gets too weird at times and Pratchett is … well, never a disappointment, but not always at his funniest. But John Irving. He is just always awesome.
And this book is no exception. This is the story of Ruth Cole who we follow at three points in her life. First as a four-years old in 1958, then in 1990 when she’s a single woman earning her living as an author and finally in 1995 when she’s forty-one years old and both a widow and a mother.
John Irving draws you in from the first page. When we meet Ruth, she is a little girl being awaken in the night by strange sounds coming from her mother’s bedroom. Having recently been ill herself, she thinks her mother is sick so she goes through the bathroom, picks up a bucket and enters her mother’s bedroom – where she finds her mother busy making love to a 16-years old boy. While Ruth makes her way from her bed to her mother’s bedroom, we are introduced to a shattered family where the mother and father don’t live together anymore, with two older brothers who are deceased and whose pictures are all over the walls of the house. And as the chapter is called ‘The Inadequate Lampshade’, you already have a pretty good idea what’s going on – and what kind of book this is.
Ruth is conceived by her parents to make up for the fact that they’ve lost their two boys in a car accident. Neither of them realizing that of course you can’t replace children – or what to do if they got a girl and not a third boy. So their marriage breaks up and for a while, they takes turn taking care of Ruth but finally, Ruth’s mother Marion leaves her husband and child, knowing that she doesn’t dare to love Ruth because she can’t bear to loose another child.
Ruth grows up in the home of her father, the children’s book author Ted Cole. Ted is a ladies’ man, he drinks a lot and he has written some incredible successful books with titles such as The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls and A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound. And Ted is a squash player.
Ted is one important man in Ruth’s life. Another one is Eddie O’Hare. Eddie is the young man, Marion has sex with over and over, the summer Ruth is four. He becomes a writer himself, writing books constantly dealing with a young man falling in love with elder women.
And Ruth grows up to be a writer, mostly because of the way her dead brothers are constantly in her life. For the first four years of her life, she is used to being taken from picture to picture of her dead brothers and told the story of the picture by both her mother and father – and her life is devastated when her mother not only leaves but take all these pictures with her. This is a book about stories and how we shape our lives through the stories we tell. And how stories differ depending on who tells it.
There’s a lot of typical John Irving tropes in here. The car accident killing sons, a traumatic event that shapes people’s lives, Ruth Cole’s first book is about a New England orphanage where abortions are performed, various sexual identities – things like that. In this book, though, there’s no dancing bears and we get to go to Amsterdam, not Vienna. And people play squash, they don’t wrestle.
I loved how we got to see Ruth work. How we see her researching a new novel in Amsterdam and slowly piecing it all together and getting ready to write an autobiographical work even though she believes in the imagination and the importance of choosing details rather than remembering them – and getting a bit more from her research that what she bargained for.
The title of the book refers to sorrow and how to deal with it. Irving begins the book with a William Makepeace Thackeray quote: ‘… as for this little lady, the best thing I can wish her is a little misfortune’. Marion has too much misfortune to be able to handle it, Ted is able to find comfort through his daughter and his womanizing, Ruth is lucky not to be hit by too much misfortune and so be able to get through life with just enough suffering to be able to get a better understanding of her mother’s actions. It’s also about how we retell our lives and how we handle our (sad) memories and keep them from ruining our lives.
This was a wonderful novel. I particularly loved the first part of it about Ruth at the age of four and her life with her father. Before reading it, I was afraid that it would feel like a disjointed story with it’s being split into three parts like that but it worked extremely well, for the most part, although I did feel the last part was the weakest of the novel – especially as the point of view of the novel shifted. I loved all the focus on stories and writing and as always, Irving is a wonderful writer and even though I see a few flaws in this novel, I absolutely loved it.

‘He read novels because he found in them the best descriptions of human nature. The novelists (he) favored never suggested that even the worst human behavior was alterable. They might morally disapprove of this or that character, but novelists were not world-changers; they were just storytellers with better-than-average stories to tell, and the good ones told stories about believable characters.’ (p. 529)

First line: 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. It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her.

  • Title: A Widow for One Year
  • Author: John Irving
  • Publisher: Black Swan
  • Year:  1999 (original 1998)
  • Pages: 668 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

I read this as part of my own challenge for the year – to read one book by each of my five favorite authors.

Related posts: