‘A Widow For One Year’ by John Irving

I loved this book! It is one of those rare books where you actually care about the characters – you feel so involved that it is as though they are real people. I was genuinely disappointed when it ended, I wanted it to carry on reading! Having said that, it was a really satisfying ending and I didn’t think the book needed to go any further, I just didn’t want to have to stop!

The storyline was intricate, detailed and far too complicated for me to try to write a brief synopsis! But it’s complex twists and turns were what made this novel so excellent. The novel follows the character of Ruth, firstly when she is four and then when she is thirty-six and forty-one. In each of the sections on different parts of her life the novel takes a different turn – each could almost be developed into a different novel of their own, yet there remains threads from each that run seamlessly through into the next until the novel’s dénouement, when all the threads tie up.

From the very beginning, I didn’t really know what to expect. The first thing that happens comes as a bit of a surprise: four-year-old Ruth walks in on her mother having sex with a young man who is not Ruth’s father and her mother only calmly tells Ruth, “Don’t scream, honey. It’s just Eddie and me.” Definitely not the usual opening! From then on nothing, or rather everything, comes as a surprise. The novel seems to change as the plot develops. What starts out as the drama of one family becomes thriller-like and utterly gripping. I could not put the book down and I certainly couldn’t guess what was coming next.

The characters are really well developed and very believable. I thought it was very interesting how Irving chose to make the adult Ruth a writer (as well as her mother, her father, and Eddie too) and how he wrote about her opinions about what a good writer should be. Ruth prides herself on not depending too heavily on experience or real people to write her novels – she claims her imagination should be good enough to create characters and events that seem real to her readers without being based on people that she knows. I found myself wondering if this reflects Irving’s opinion or if he is doing as she does and the whole novel is fictional. Yet the notion that the entire novel is totally fictional is called into question when some of the events in Ruth’s novels start to mirror her personal experiences. Can an author really separate real life from all his/her characters? Such a focus on writers could have been a little self-indulgent but I didn’t think that this was the case at all and I thought it created a almost a debate within the novel itself that made you consider the plausibility of the characters. And my conclusion was that, the characters were brilliantly plausible!

I thought the novel was very good at expressing the feelings of the characters in a way that made it very easy to sympathise with them and imagine them as real people. Marion’s sorrow for her dead sons and her inability to let herself love her daughter Ruth was touching and, although it could have become easy to dislike Marion for leaving Ruth at such a young age, I never felt like Irving wanted you to ‘take sides’ with the characters. Similarly, with Ruth’s father, Ted, I didn’t dislike him despite all his womanising and the way he treated women (which was definitely something to dislike!) and I found I could almost understand him – his faults were acknowledged but so were his attributes that made him a good person at heart.

The novel definitely takes an unanticipated darker turn around the time of Ruth’s trip to Europe. There is sufficient horror to keep your eyes glued to the page and your heart in your mouth. The book is also full of immeasurable sadness that is heart-breaking when you become so emotionally involved with the characters, yet there is humour too. Thoroughly mischievous and compelling, ‘A Widow For One Year’ is a fantastic novel and a delight to read.

a widow for one year

This was really my last book of leisure before I start on the mountain of books that constitute my reading list for this semester, starting in September. I’m very glad I chose this book as, I think if it had been something a bit disappointing I would felt a bit aggrieved to have to start reading books whose titles are chosen for me, but now I’m quite looking forward to my reading lists. There looks to be some good ones on my lists, some perhaps that I would have chosen myself (if I’d heard of them before!), and some that interest me but nevertheless fill me with trepidation, namely ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce. I’ll have to let you know how I get on with that one!


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