Near the end of The Widower’s Tale, in a segment narrated by the widower of the title, he says, “I have always been an avid and fairly ecumenical reader of fiction: I relish the pretend, the invented, the convincingly contrived.” I found this sudden meta-moment quite charming, Julia Glass catching my eye and winking before retreating back into her tale. Normally I am not happy to be reminded that the book I’m reading is an artifact but Glass had won me over by then.
There may be an argument to be made that The Widower’s Tale is full of literary tricks. After all, couldn’t the importance of a tree house, a school called “Elves and Fairies,” endless reference to storytelling be pointing us in that direction? I could even propose that Robert, the charming grandson of the widower, is a latter-day Cambridge Candide, ending the book by cultivating a garden en français. There’s a lot of fairly blatant contrivance in the book: mirror lawyers, a character with breast cancer, a doctor whose specialty is just that, a grouchy narrator named Darling… oh, lord. Peter Pan? Maybe. But I’d rather think about the conviction with which I believed in all of these characters that Glass conjures into being. And truthfully, though she may be toying with literary conceits, there’s plenty going on without that level of analysis.
At the most superficial level, this is the story of Percival Darling, the seventy-year-old resident of a beautiful old house in Matlock, Massachusetts, whose old barn has been taken over by a nursery school. Yes, that would be “Elves and Fairies.” His wife drowned in his pond years earlier, leaving Percy to raise his two daughters in a kind of emotionally frozen solicitude. As we enter the story, Percy is being sardonic about how precious and prosperous his town has become. Glass is sharp about this, and funny. She also creates a wonderful voice for Percy: arch, irritating, old.
But the story is also told from the viewpoint of Percy’s grandson Robert, a Harvard undergraduate and a “good boy,” as well as those of the gay nursery school teacher Ira and the Guatemalan day laborer Celestino. In a way The Widower’s Tale is a domestic drama in the mold of Joanna Trollope, but it takes in a wider field of vision. A picture-perfect town like Matlock hums along on lots of money and selective focus. Those men who cut our roses? We bring them lemonade when it gets hot and forget about them the rest of the time. If there is a unifying theme, it’s the danger of taking things for granted, whether they be limits or privileges.
Perhaps most impressive to me was the way Glass actually ramped up the tension in the plot. The Widower’s Tale proclaims itself as a well-made novel, where everything ultimately connects. So the narrative threads about eco-protestors, Celestino’s connection to the Darling family, Ira’s lawyer boyfriend, even the tree house: you know that somehow they are going to fit together. And while there are ominous signs — it’s clear the denouement will be explosive — you also trust Glass that the characters she’s made you so fond of will be treated with kindness. OK, it’s artificial. But in a good way.