A Widow for One Year

A Widow for One Year

3.9 116
by John Irving

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Twenty years after The World According to Garp, John Irving gave us his ninth novel, A Widow for One Year, about a family marked by tragedy. Ruth Cole is a complex, often self-contradictory character -- a "difficult" woman. By no means is she conventionally "nice," but she will never be forgotten. Ruth's story is told in three parts, each focusing on a critical time…  See more details below


Twenty years after The World According to Garp, John Irving gave us his ninth novel, A Widow for One Year, about a family marked by tragedy. Ruth Cole is a complex, often self-contradictory character -- a "difficult" woman. By no means is she conventionally "nice," but she will never be forgotten. Ruth's story is told in three parts, each focusing on a critical time in her life. When we first meet her -- on Long Island, in the summer of 1958 -- Ruth is only four. The second window into Ruth's life opens on the fall of 1990, when she is an unmarried woman whose personal life is not nearly as successful as her literary career. She distrusts her judgment in men, for good reason. A Widow for One Year closes in the autumn of 1995, when Ruth Cole is a forty-one-year-old widow and mother. She's about to fall in love for the first time. Richly comic, as well as deeply disturbing, A Widow for One Year is a multilayered love story of astonishing emotional force. Both ribald and erotic, it is also a brilliant novel about the passage of time and the relentlessness of grief.

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Editorial Reviews

LA Times Book Review
Deeply affecting...The pleasures of this rich and beautiful book are manifold. To be human is to savor them.
San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle
John Irving as at the peak of his considerable powers in A Widow for One Year, his most intricate and fully imagined novel.
Library Journal
The first half of Irving's ninth novel tells the story of Eddie O'Hare, a prep school student with literary aspirations who lands a job as a personal assistant to noted children's author Ted Cole in the summer of 1958. O'Hare spends most of the time in bed with Cole's wife, Marion. The second half of the book describes O'Hare's acquaintance, decades later, with Ruth Cole, Ted's daughter, who is also a successful writer. While researching her latest novel, Ruth witnesses the murder of an Amsterdam window prostitute. Irving tantalizes us with this promising subplot, then veers off in another direction. As in The World According to Garp, nearly every character in the book churns out reams of Irving-esque prose. It's hard to empathize with these dreary people, and their picaresque adventures seem to lack any thematic relevance. Instead of ending, the book simply runs out of steam. Still, there are legions of rabid Irving fans who will want to read every word he has written.
—Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles
The New York Times
Irving's most entertaining and persuasive novel since his 1978 bestseller, The World According to Garp.
Peter Kurth
A Widow for One Year, the enormously entertaining new novel by John Irving, is all narrative, all character, all author. This is to be expected from Irving, a writer who describes his fiction as "old-fashioned" and looks to 19th century novels as the model for his work. It's the measure of his achievement here that in a book spanning 40 years and nearly 600 pages, you feel when it's over that you've spent your time wisely, not just with the story and its protagonists, but with their creator, too, whose voice remains as forceful and distinctive as his characters' without once intruding where it doesn't belong.

The "widow" of Irving's title is Ruth Cole, just 4 years old when the novel opens in 1958. "This is Ruth's story," says Irving slyly, though anyone who's read his books before will guess that Ruth's story quickly becomes many stories. Ruth is the child of a stupendously successful children's book writer, Ted Cole, hard-drinking and a "womanizer," and his beautiful, distant wife, Marion. Before Ruth's birth, the Coles had suffered the loss of their two teenage sons, Thomas and Timothy, in a car wreck on Long Island. Ruth is the boys' wary replacement, born to a house of grief and relentless memories, instructed in the lives of her dead brothers from her first moment of consciousness and surrounded by their photographs until Marion suddenly leaves Ted, taking all the pictures with her and disappearing forever from Ruth's life. The immediate instigator of Marion's departure is Eddie O'Hare, a 16-year-old Exeter student employed as an assistant by Ted one summer with the express idea that he will have an affair with Marion; that Marion will see in Eddie the image of her lost sons; that divorce will ensue and that Ted, finally, will have custody of Ruth.

But be warned: This is only the set-up for the tale. As usual with Irving, A Widow for One Year is an epic tragedy told in madcap terms. Ruth grows up to be a bestselling novelist; Eddie also writes books, though not as successfully; Ted carries on drinking and seducing other men's wives; and Marion — but to tell about Marion would be playing unfair. It's familiar Irving territory, wildly comic, ruminative and spread all over the globe. In the end, however, this is a novel about biography and the nature of fiction, a well-known theme of Irving's that doesn't suffer in the retelling.

"Ruth Cole's credo amounted to a war against the roman à clef," Irving writes pointedly, "a put-down of the autobiographical novel ... She asserted that the best fictional detail was a chosen detail, not a remembered one — for fictional truth was not only the truth of observation, which was the truth of mere journalism. The best fictional detail was the detail that should have defined the character or the episode or the atmosphere. Fictional truth was what should have happened in a story — not necessarily what did happen or what had happened." A lot happens in A Widow for One Year, of that you can be sure. It's a welcome and robust roar to life from one of our finest storytellers.
Salon April 28, 1998

William H. Pritchard
...[S]eems to me the best story John Irving has yet contrived.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Irving's latest LBM (Loose Baggy Monster, that is), which portrays with serio-comic gusto the literary life and its impact on both writers and their families, is simultaneously one of his most intriguing books and one of his most self-indulgent and flaccid. Though it's primarily the story of successful novelist Ruth Cole, the lengthy foreground, set in Sagaponack, Long Island, in 1958, is dominated by Ruth's parents, Ted and Marion, both minor novelists (though Ted later becomes rich and famous as a writer and illustrator of children's stories), both mourning the deaths of their two teenaged sons in an automobile accident. Ted copes by seducing younger (often married) women; Marion, by bearing a daughter (Ruth) whom she'll later abandon following her affair with 16-year-old Eddie O'Hare, a prep-school student hired by Ted as a 'writer's assistant.' Later sections, set in 1990 and 1995, dwell melodramatically on Ruth's painstaking progress toward romantic happiness (including a European book tour that involves her with a prostitutes' rights organization) and the lingering effects of their adolescent affair on Eddie, who's now a middle-aged novelist and 'perpetual visiting writer-in-residence' with a lifelong passion for older women.

A grieving widow, offended by one of Ruth's novels, pronounces a curse on her. Eddie accidentally learns that the fugitive Marion is living in Canada, writing detective novels (by now the bemused reader may have anticipated the question later put to Ruth: 'Is everyone you know a writer?'). The story moves sluggishly, and overindulges both Irving's (Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, 1996) love of intricate Victorian plots and his literary likes anddislikes. On the other hand, his characters are vividly imagined, insistent presences who get under your skin and stay with you. A thoughtful, if diffuse, examination of how writers make art of their lives and loves without otherwise benefitting from the process.

From the Publisher
A New York Times Notable Book 

"[As] satisfying as one of Shakespeare's romances ... rich in perfect details [and]... miraculous events, the sort that are longed for and cherished, the sort that sustain the imagination when reality becomes too disappointing." The Financial Post

"Full of the antics of scorned lovers and infatuated youth, of madcap chases and boisterous lovemaking.... A faith in patient storytelling and the conviction that narrative hunger is part of our essence." Carol Shields, The Globe and Mail

"Powerful and sophisticated.... A stunning narrative...wonderful, sumptuous, entertaining." The Ottawa Citizen

"[Irving's] storytelling has never been better...engaging and affecting ... old-fashioned and modern all at once." The New York Times

"Irving is at the height of his considerable literary powers. His novels burst with stories, characters, arguments, oddities and images that help us define the world we live in." Playboy

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Reader's Circle Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt


Summer 1958

The Inadequate Lamp Shade

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. Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.

It was not as simple a matter as her parents having separate bedrooms; that summer they had separate houses, although Ruth never saw the other house. Her parents spent alternate nights in the family house with Ruth; there was a rental house nearby, where Ruth's mother or father stayed when they weren't staying with Ruth. It was one of those ridiculous arrangements that couples make when they are separating, but before they are divorced--when they still imagine that children and property can be shared with more magnanimity than recrimination.

When Ruth woke to the foreign sound, she at first wasn't sure if it was her mother or her father who was throwing up; then, despite the unfamiliarity of the disturbance, Ruth recognized that measure of melancholy and contained hysteria which was often detectable in her mother's voice. Ruth also remembered that it was her mother's turn to stay with her.

The master bathroom separated Ruth's room from the master bedroom. When the four-year-old padded barefoot through the bathroom, she took a towel with her. (When she'd been sick with the stomach flu, her father had encouraged her to vomit in a towel.) Poor Mommy! Ruth thought, bringing her the towel.

In the dim moonlight, and in the even dimmer and erratic light from thenight-light that Ruth's father had installed in the bathroom, Ruth saw the pale faces of her dead brothers in the photographs on the bathroom wall. There were photos of her dead brothers throughout the house, on all the walls; although the two boys had died as teenagers, before Ruth was born (before she was even conceived), Ruth felt that she knew these vanished young men far better than she knew her mother or father.

The tall, dark one with the angular face was Thomas; even at Ruth's age, when he'd been only four, Thomas had had a leading man's kind of handsomeness--a combination of poise and thuggery that, in his teenage years, gave him the seeming confidence of a much older man. (Thomas had been the driver of the doomed car.)

The younger, insecure-looking one was Timothy; even as a teenager, he was baby-faced and appeared to have just been startled by something. In many of the photographs, Timothy seemed to be caught in a moment of indecision, as if he were perpetually reluctant to imitate an incredibly difficult stunt that Thomas had mastered with apparent ease. (In the end, it was something as basic as driving a car that Thomas failed to master sufficiently.)

When Ruth Cole entered her parents' bedroom, she saw the naked young man who had mounted her mother from behind; he was holding her mother's breasts in his hands and humping her on all fours, like a dog, but it was neither the violence nor the repugnance of the sexual act that caused Ruth to scream. The four-year-old didn't know that she was witnessing a sexual act--nor did the young man and her mother's activity strike Ruth as entirely unpleasant. In fact, Ruth was relieved to see that her mother was not throwing up. And it wasn't the young man's nakedness that caused Ruth to scream; she had seen her father and her mother nakednakedness was not hidden among the Coles. It was the young man himself who made Ruth scream, because she was certain he was one of her dead brothers; he looked so much like Thomas, the confident one, that Ruth Cole believed she had seen a ghost.

A four-year-old's scream is a piercing sound. Ruth was astonished at the speed with which her mother's young lover dismounted; indeed, he removed himself from both the woman and her bed with such a combination of panic and zeal that he appeared to be propelled--it was almost as if a cannonball had dislodged him. He fell over the night table, and, in an effort to conceal his nakedness, removed the lamp shade from the broken bedside lamp. As such, he seemed a less menacing sort of ghost than Ruth had first judged him to be; furthermore, now that Ruth took a closer look at him, she recognized him. He was the boy who occupied the most distant guest room, the boy who drove her father's car--the boy who worked for her daddy, her mommy had said. Once or twice the boy had driven Ruth and her babysitter to the beach.

That summer, Ruth had three different nannies; each of them had commented on how pale the boy was, but Ruth's mother had told her that some people just didn't like the sun. The child had never before seen the boy without his clothes, of course; yet Ruth was certain that the young man's name was Eddie and that he wasn't a ghost. Nevertheless, the four-year-old screamed again.

Her mother, still on all fours on her bed, looked characteristically unsurprised; she merely viewed her daughter with an expression of discouragement edged with despair. Before Ruth could cry out a third time, her mother said, "Don't scream, honey. It's just Eddie and me. Go back to bed."

Ruth Cole did as she was told, once more passing those photographs--more ghostly-seeming now than her mother's fallen ghost of a lover. Eddie, while attempting to hide himself with the lamp shade, had been oblivious to the fact that the lamp shade, being open at both ends, afforded Ruth an unobstructed view of his diminishing penis.

At four, Ruth was too young to ever remember Eddie or his penis with the greatest detail, but he would remember her. Thirty-six years later, when he was fifty-two and Ruth was forty, this ill-fated young man would fall in love with Ruth Cole. Yet not even then would he regret having fucked Ruth's mother. Alas, that would be Eddie's problem. This is Ruth's story.

That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any "presence" she detected in either her mother or her father--and that, after her mother abandoned her and her father (and took with her almost all the photos of her lost sons), Ruth would wonder why her father left the picture hooks stuck in the bare walls. The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer--for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photographs had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the actual pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed. That Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; from her earliest memory, she was forced to imagine them.

It was one of those automobile accidents involving teenagers that, in the aftermath, revealed that both boys had been "good kids" and that neither of them had been drinking. Worst of all, to the endless torment of their parents, the coincidence of Thomas and Timothy being in that car at that exact time, and in that specific place, was the result of an altogether avoidable quarrel between the boys' mother and father. The poor parents would relive the tragic results of their trivial argument for the rest of their lives.

Later Ruth was told that she was conceived in a well-intentioned but passionless act. Ruth's parents were mistaken to even imagine that their sons were replaceable--nor did they pause to consider that the new baby who would bear the burden of their impossible expectations might be a girl.

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. Those handsome young men in the photographs had stolen most of her mother's affection; however, her mother's rejection was more bearable to Ruth than growing up in the shadow of the coldness that passed between her parents.

Ted Cole, a best-selling author and illustrator of books for children, was a handsome man who was better at writing and drawing for children than he was at fulfilling the daily responsibilities of fatherhood. And until Ruth was four-and-a-half, while Ted Cole was not always drunk, he frequently drank too much. It's also true that, while Ted was not a womanizer every waking minute, at no time in his life was he ever entirely nota womanizer. (Granted, this made him more unreliable with women than he was with children.)

Ted had ended up writing for children by default. His literary debut was an overpraised adult novel of an indisputably literary sort. The two novels that followed aren't worth mentioning, except to say that no one--especially Ted Cole's publisher--had expressed any noticeable interest in a fourth novel, which was never written. Instead, Ted wrote his first children's book. Called The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls, it was very nearly not published; at first glance, it appeared to be one of those children's books that are of dubious appeal to parents and remain memorable to children only because children remember being frightened. At least Thomas and Timothy were frightened by The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls when Ted first told them the story; by the time Ted told it to Ruth, The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls had already frightened about nine or ten million children, in more than thirty languages, around the world.

Like her dead brothers, Ruth grew up on her father's stories. When Ruth first read these stories in a book, it felt like a violation of her privacy. She'd imagined that her father had created these stories for her alone. Later she would wonder if her dead brothers had felt that their privacy had been similarly invaded.

Regarding Ruth's mother: Marion Cole was a beautiful woman; she was also a good mother, at least until Ruth was born. And until the deaths of her beloved sons, she was a loyal and faithful wife--despite her husband's countless infidelities. But after the accident that took her boys away, Marion became a different woman, distant and cold. Because of her apparent indifference to her daughter, Marion was relatively easy for Ruth to reject. It would be harder for Ruth to recognize what was flawed about her father; it would also take a lot longer for her to come to this recognition, and by then it would be too late for Ruth to turn completely against him. Ted had charmed her--Ted charmed almost everyone, up to a certain age. No one was ever charmed by Marion. Poor Marion never tried to charm anyone, not even her only daughter; yet it was possible to love Marion Cole.

And this is where Eddie, the unlucky young man with the inadequate lamp shade, enters the story. He loved Marion--he would never stop loving her. Naturally if he'd known from the beginning that he was going to fall in love with Ruth, he might have reconsidered falling in love with her mother. But probably not. Eddie couldn't help himself.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"[As] satisfying as one of Shakespeare's romances ... rich in perfect details [and] ... miraculous events, the sort that are longed for and cherished, the sort that sustain the imagination when reality becomes too disappointing."
The Financial Post

"Full of the antics of scorned lovers and infatuated youth, of madcap chases and boisterous lovemaking ... He offers ... a faith in patient storytelling and the conviction that narrative hunger is part of our essence."
—Carol Shields, The Globe and Mail

"Powerful and sophisticated ... A stunning narrative ... wonderful, sumptuous, entertaining."
The Ottawa Citizen

"[Irving's] storytelling has never been better... engaging and affecting ... old-fashioned and modern all at once."
The New York Times

"[A] rich, great new novel ... profoundly engaging and lively ... Irving unearths [the] departed beauty in our lives."
Quill & Quire

"Irving is at the height of his considerable literary powers. His novels burst with stories, characters, arguments, oddities and images that help us define the world we live in."

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Widow for One Year 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 113 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'A Widow for One Year' is arguably John Irving's best novel, and if not that, at least a shining example of a writer at the peak of his powers. Make no mistake, however: John Irving is a 19th-century storyteller. He is concerned with character development through the passage of time, so there is no discernable plot to speak of. Others complain about a disjointedness to the novel, yet that is the primary characteristic of the bildungsroman. Ruth Cole is Irving's strongest and most frustrating character she is never entirely likable, nor are her family and friends exactly 'normal.' A bit of suspension of disbelief might be necessary for some readers, but that's part in parcel with the novel's brilliance whether we acknowledge it or not, life is full of tragedy and coincidence. A cynic's view is to dismiss such contrivances as hokey, yet the true storyteller delights not in hokum but in the patent absurdity of human existence. Our individual navigation through the ridiculous happenstances which people our lives to Irving clearly our most valuable characteristics. Irving paints in broad strokes, casting his characters' lives over sixty years. They never end up as we expect, and yet the novel's most touching moments are its conclusion, which takes place exactly as we would expect. 'A Widow for One Year' is a broad, ribald, erotic, and sublime work of art by one of our country's greatest living writers.
tcarmen More than 1 year ago
Irving's novel is compelling and provocative. His writing style presents beautifully composed prose that is intellectually stimulating as well as readable. This novel presents characters who reflect the shadows with which many of us live. The novel progresses as they search for meaning and fulfillment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Irving is an excellent story teller and I was hooked from the first few pages. I love that he says something and then flashes back to explain. Sometimes he'll be telling the story and give something away that is about to happen but you forget and keep reading on and then you read about the events that lead to his forshadowing statement. Amazing story, the end was a bit of a disappointment, but most authors can't always satisfy the reader with regards to endings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the fourth Irving novel I have read; like his other novels, the reader truly gets to know the characters throughout their lives. At times, I could not put the book down; I enjoy Irving's dry, dark sense of humor.I also love that the book takes place in Sagoponack, Long Island- the reader gets a glimpse into NY high society. If you haven't read 'The Hotel New Hampshire' yet, check out this book before 'A Widow for one Year.'
Fowler More than 1 year ago
Terrific and still fresh after a bunch of years. Truly a pleasure to read, so incredibly vivid and well rendered. Definitely recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
John Irving creates characters and moments that stay with the reader long after you finish reading. His novels, however, are not for the faint of heart, and the plots are so intricate that they virtually defy explanation (at least no description I could provide would do his novels justice). No author can write a more shocking or disturbing scene - and Irving can create shocking and disturbing scenes that leave the reader either wiping away tears of laughter or gaping in horror. Irving thinks of everything as he constructs his scenes and develops his characters, and the result is an extremely richly detailed, and satisfying story. Every time I finish an Irving novel, my most difficult decision is which one to read next. A Widow for One Year is not my favorite Irving novel (see The World According to Garp for that), but it is still a tremendous, moving, and highly enjoyable story. To understand though, you just have to read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book full of quirky characters and intricately woven details. This is a must read! Best last line in context of the book as a whole. Read it then pass it on to your friends.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Irving is a master at storytelling. He made me laugh and criticize the characters as if they were real people. All of the italics were a bit exhausting, but that is all that I had a problem with. This was my 1st John Irving novel, but most definitely not the last.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Started off great but got extremely tedious as it dragged on way too long and the plot scattered in different directions unnecessarily. Overdescriptive ruminations...I didnt like it. I got bored in the middle. Its not necessary to overwrite a novel. This one disappointed me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This story lacked the ability to make me connect with the characters. It was surprising, after reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. That was a book that gripped my emotions. This book started out well in the beginning and then just sort of fell flat and spun in too many silly directions afterwards. I didn't care for it.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A highly complex and complicated story as only John Irving can tell it. Lots of plot lines, stories within stories, novels within the novel; you'll experience every emotion from heart wrenching to hilarity. If you like John Irving, you'll love miss this one. If you've not read him before, you'll be a new convert after this! You'll regret it if you don't.!
Pretend_Spoon More than 1 year ago
John Irving is one of the best authors I have ever read. It caused me to overlook some of the more uncomfortable topics this novel addressed, and it was still one of the most enjoyable stories I have ever read.
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LunaPrat More than 1 year ago
I truly loved this book
JeanLW More than 1 year ago
Wonderful charachter development but some parts were predictable which i didnt like. You learn so much about every charachter and i love Irving's writing voice