With “A Widow for One Year,” John Irving has 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.
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.