The Widower's Tale [NOOK Book]

Overview

In a historic farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling is settling happily into retirement: reading novels, watching old movies, and swimming naked in his pond. His routines are disrupted, however, when he is persuaded to let a locally beloved preschool take over his barn. As Percy sees his rural refuge overrun by children, parents, and teachers, he must reexamine the solitary life he has made in the three decades since the sudden death of his wife. No longer can he remain aloof from his ...

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The Widower's Tale

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Overview

In a historic farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling is settling happily into retirement: reading novels, watching old movies, and swimming naked in his pond. His routines are disrupted, however, when he is persuaded to let a locally beloved preschool take over his barn. As Percy sees his rural refuge overrun by children, parents, and teachers, he must reexamine the solitary life he has made in the three decades since the sudden death of his wife. No longer can he remain aloof from his community, his two grown daughters, or, to his shock, the precarious joy of falling in love.
 
One relationship Percy treasures is the bond with his oldest grandchild, Robert, a premed student at Harvard. Robert has long assumed he will follow in the footsteps of his mother, a prominent physician, but he begins to question his ambitions when confronted by a charismatic roommate who preaches—and begins to practice—an extreme form of ecological activism, targeting Boston’s most affluent suburbs.
 
Meanwhile, two other men become fatefully involved with Percy and Robert: Ira, a gay teacher at the preschool, and Celestino, a Guatemalan gardener who works for Percy’s neighbor, each one striving to overcome a sense of personal exile. Choices made by all four men, as well as by the women around them, collide forcefully on one lovely spring evening, upending everyone’s lives, but none more radically than Percy’s.
 
With equal parts affection and satire, Julia Glass spins a captivating tale about the loyalties, rivalries, and secrets of a very particular family. Yet again, she plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly.




From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Maria Russo
Among the many astute touches in The Widower's Tale is the fact that the action takes place within the orbit of two educational institutions looming large in the minds of today's affluent, consumerist parents: an exclusive "progressive" preschool and Harvard. If we can somehow shepherd our children through the first and then into the other, the communal fantasy goes, they'll land safely in some dreamy sphere of the elite, where there's no suffering, no strife, no failure, where the workers are invisible and all the real estate is light-filled. This energized, good-humored novel…smashes through that illusion, beginning as satire, becoming stealthily suspenseful and ending up with a satisfyingly cleareyed and compassionate view of American entitlement and its fallout.
—The New York Times
Donna Rifkind
Each strand of this narrative macramé is surprisingly supple, offering a convincing illusion of lives roundly lived. The effect is one of remarkable expansiveness, in which a rather modest small-town story is able to incorporate all kinds of contemporary social issues, including illegal immigration, eco-terrorism, health-care coverage, divorce and gay marriage…Glass propels her characters through a world that is sometimes dire but also sweetly normal and often joyful. It's the Glass-half-full version of Lorrie Moore's grief-stricken novel A Gate at the Stairs.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Percy Darling, 70, the narrator of Glass's fourth novel, takes comfort in certitudes: he will never leave his historic suburban Boston house, he is done with love (still guilty about his wife's death 30 years ago), and his beloved grandson Robert, a Harvard senior, will do credit to the family name. But Glass (Three Junes) spins a beautifully paced, keenly observed story in which certainties give way to surprising reversals of fortune. Percy is an opinionated, cantankerous, newly retired Harvard librarian and nobody's "darling," who decides to lease his barn to a local preschool, mainly to give his daughter Clover, who has abandoned her husband and children in New York, a job. Percy's other daughter is a workaholic oncologist in Boston who becomes important to a young mother at the school with whom Percy, to his vast surprise, establishes a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Percy's grandson, Robert, falls in with an ecoterrorist group. Glass handles the coalescing plot elements with astute insights into the complexity of family relationships, the gulf between social classes, and our modern culture of excess to create a dramatic, thought-provoking, and immensely satisfying novel. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
Praise for The Widower’s Tale
 
“A satisfyingly cleareyed and compassionate view of American entitlement and its fallout. . . The family is society’s most inescapable institution, but in Glass’s hands it’s also the most shifting and vulnerable. And in The Widower’s Tale she approaches the ties of kinship with the same joyfully disruptive spirit that animated her previous books.”
—Maria Russo, The New York Times Book Review
 
“An enchanting story of familial bonds and late-life romance. Expect to be infatuated with Glass’s protagonist, 70-year-old Percy Darling, he of generous soul, dry wit, and courtly manners.”
Oprah

“Glass effortlessly ping-pongs between three dramas to show how everyday love and lies can make—or completely destroy—a life. This one’s perfect for when you’ve got the night all to yourself and want to keep thinking long after the last page is turned.” 
Redbook
 
“Tremendously engaging . . . It's a large, endearing cast, bursting with emotional and social issues, and Glass slips effortlessly between their individual and enmeshed dramas. As she well proved in her National Book Award-winning Three Junes, Glass crafts dense and absorbing reads that are as charming as they are provocative.”
—Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly
 
“Both funny and heartbreaking, [Glass’s] fourth novel will eave readers examining their own choices and priorities . . . One of the most remarkable aspects of Glass’s novel is that she writes convincingly from multiple points of view, classes and stations in life.”
Bookpage
 
“Alluring descriptions, along with discerning characters, intricate plot lines, and the tackling of several complex issues offers an empathetic yet lively read.”
New York Journal of Books
 
“Glass spins a beautifully paced, keenly observed story in which certainties give way to surprising reversals of fortune . . . Glass handles coalescing plot elements with astute insight into the complexity of family relationships, the gulf between social classes, and our modern culture of excess to create a dramatic, thought-provoking, and immensely satisfying novel.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review
 
“Glass’s perfect plot gives each character his or her due, in an irresistible pastoral tragicomedy that showcases the warmth and wisdom of one of America’s finest novelists, approaching if not already arrived at her peak.”
Kirkus, starred review

“Elaborately plotted and luxuriously paced, Glass’s inquisitive, compassionate, funny, and suspenseful saga addresses significant and thorny social issues with emotional veracity, artistic nuance, and a profound perception of the grand interconnectivity of life.”
Booklist (starred review)
 
Praise for I See You Everywhere
 
“Rich, intricate, and alive with emotion . . . An honest portrait of sister-love and sister-hate—interlocking, brave, and forgiving.”
 —The New York Times Book Review
 
“One doesn’t read so much as sink into a Julia Glass novel, lulled into an escapist reverie by her mastery . . . A novel that begins as sophisticated diversion [becomes] a haunting dissection of human fragility.”
People
 
Praise for The Whole World Over
 
“[Glass’s] second novel is even finer than her first . . . Her characters are enticingly complex, their predicaments are provocative and significant . . . Her love for animals, feel for landscape, and ardor for language itself feed the freshness, sensuousness, and compassion that make this such a nourishing and pleasurable read.”
Chicago Tribune
 
“Beautiful and satisfying, chock-full of the gorgeous, heartbreaking stuff that makes life worth living.”
Rocky Mountain News
 
Praise for Three Junes
 
“Enormously accomplished . . . Rich, absorbing, and full of life.”
—The New Yorker
 
“Brilliantly rescues, then refurbishes, the traditional plot-driven novel . . . Glass has written a generous book about family expectations—but also about happiness.”
The New York Times Book Review

Library Journal
At 70, retired Harvard librarian Percy Darling has turned into a bit of a crank. The gentrification of his quaint New England village and the technological shift in libraries are among his many gripes. The latest assault on Percy's peace and contentment is the presence of a day care he has allowed his daughter to build on his historic property. Multistranded plotlines intersect and connect the others who orbit Percy's world: single mother Sarah, with whom Percy forms an attachment after years of self-imposed monkhood; Percy's daughters Trudy, a renowned breast cancer consultant, and Clover, suffering through a messy custody dispute; his grandson, Robert, whose friends are involved in underground environmental activism; Celestino, a Guatemalan gardener with immigration problems; and Ira, a gay day care worker who had been falsely accused of improper conduct at his previous school. VERDICT As she has done so compellingly in earlier novels (e.g., Three Junes), Glass brings together familiar themes, sympathetic characters, and multiple story lines in a harmonious mashup that is sure to enchant her many fans. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/10.]—Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.
Kirkus Reviews

Another heartwarming winner from the NBA-anointed Massachusetts author.

Glass (I See You Everywhere, 2008, etc.) observes and gently mocks her charmingly self-absorbed characters in an unmannered manner reminiscent of her popular contemporary Allegra Goodman and their accomplished forerunner Anne Tyler. This time around, age and youth, urban and small-town life, straight and gay relationships, and aesthetic and political priorities are examined with a beguiling mixture of gusto and delicacy. Focal character Percy Darling is a 70-year-old widower living in retirement (from his longtime employment at Harvard's Widener Library) not far from Boston, where he has donated to a trendy preschool use of the barn on his expansive property. The busy activities at "Elves & Fairies" stimulate bittersweet memories of Percy's late wife Poppy, who had housed a dance studio in that very barn, before perishing in a senseless accident 30 years earlier. As the novel ambles deceptively along, gathering momentum and complexity, Percy—really more of a curmudgeon than a "darling"—discovers that his life is much more than the shell of its former self he'd been prepared to accept. Glass moves the viewpoint skillfully, showing how Percy's late-life learning curve intersects with those of such variously involved characters as his elder daughter Clover, whose shaky grasp of the responsibilities of adulthood contrasts cruelly with her younger sister's career as a prominent oncologist; her nephew (and Percy's pride and joy) Robert, a Harvard pre-med student who plunges into the darkest waters of environmental activism; gay preschool teacher Ira, an unlikely source of more lessons for Percy; and "illegal" Guatemalan handyman Celestino, an optimist who just may become the man Percy has always believed himself to be. Reversals of fortune and chastening surprises are in store for them all.

Glass's perfect plot gives each character his or her due, in an irresistible pastoral tragicomedy that showcases the warmth and wisdom of one of America's finest novelists, approaching if not already arrived at her peak.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307379436
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 54,372
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Julia Glass

Julia Glass is the author of Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award for Fiction; The Whole World Over; and I See You Everywhere, winner of the 2009 Binghamton University John Gardner Book Award. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her short fiction has won several prizes, and her personal essays have been widely anthologized. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.




From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

After graduating from Yale with a degree in art, Julia Glass received a fellowship to study figurative painting in Paris. Upon her return, she moved to New York, where she became involved in the city's vibrant art scene, worked as a copy editor, and wrote the occasional magazine column. She had always been a good writer, but her energies were initially focused on an art career. Finally, the pull to write became too strong. Glass put down her paint brush and picked up her pen

One of her earliest short stories, never published, was a semi-autobiographical piece called "Souvenirs." Loosely based on her experiences as a student traveling in Greece, the story was (by Glass's own admission) pretty formulaic. Yet, she found herself returning to it over the years, haunted by the faint memory of someone she had met on that trip: an older man whose wife had recently died.

Then, during the early 1990s, Glass experienced some serious setbacks in her life: Within the space of a few years, her marriage ended in divorce, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her beloved younger sister -- a dynamic woman with a seemingly wonderful life -- committed suicide. Devastated by her sister's death, Glass turned to writing as a way of working through her grief and loss. Suddenly, the memory of the sad widower in Greece took on a melancholy resonance. She retrieved "Souvenirs" from her desk drawer for one final rewrite, expanded it to novella length, and spun it from a different point of view. Renamed "Collies," the story won the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Medal in 1999. It also became the first section of Glass's remarkable 2002 debut novel, the National Book Award winner Three Junes.

After a spate of "postmodern" bestsellers, Three Junes was like a breath of fresh air, harkening back to an era of more straightforward, gimmick-free writing. Spanning a period of ten years (1989-1999), the novel covers three disparate, event-filled months in the lives of a well-to-do Scottish family named McLeod, weaving a cast of colorful, interconnected characters into a tapestry of contemporary social mores that would do Glass's 19th-century role model George Eliot proud.

The same dazzling sprawl that distinguished her acclaimed debut has characterized Glass's subsequent efforts -- rich, dense narratives that unfold from multiple points of view and illuminate the full, complicated spectrum of relationships (among parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and lovers). In an interview with NPR, she explained her penchant for ensemble casts and panoramic multidimensional stories: "I see life as increasingly complex, vivid, colorful, crazy, chaotic. That's the world I write about...the world I live in."

Good To Know

Glass's first published writing was a regular column on pets called "Animal Love" that ran in Glamour magazine for two years in the late eighties. Says Glass, "I grew up in a home where animals were ever-present and often dominated our lives. There were always horses, dogs, and cats, as well as a revolving infirmary of injured wildlife being nursed by my sister the aspiring vet. Without any conscious intention on my part, animals come to play a significant role in my fiction: in Three Junes, a parrot and a pack of collies; in The Whole World Over, a bulldog named The Bruce. To dog lovers, by the way, I recommend My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley -- by far the best 'animal book' I've ever read."

She is an avid rug-hooker in her free time. She explains that "unlike the more restrictive needlepoint, this medium permits me to work with yarn in a fluid, painterly fashion." Several of her rugs were reproduced in a book called Punch Needle Rug Hooking, by Amy Oxford (Schiffer Books).

Glass considers herself a "confirmed, unrepentant late bloomer." She explains, "I talked late, swam late, did not learn to ride a bike until college -- and might never have walked or learned to drive a car if my parents hadn't overruled my lack of motivation and virtually forced me to embrace both forms of transportation. I suspect I was happy to sit in a corner with a book. Though I didn't quite plan it that way, I had my two sons at just about the same ages my mother saw me and my sister off to college, and my first novel was published when I was 46. This 'tardiness' isn't something I'm proud of, but I'm happy to be an inspiration to others who arrive at these milestones later than most of us do."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Julie Glass
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 23, 1956
    2. Place of Birth:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale College, 1978; Scholar of the House in Art, Summa Cum Laude, 1978

Read an Excerpt

1

"Why, thank you. I’m getting in shape to die.” Those were the first words I spoke aloud on the final Thursday in August of last summer: Thursday, I recall for certain, because it was the day on which I read in our weekly town paper about the first of what I would so blithely come to call the Crusades; the end of the month, I can also say for certain, because Elves & Fairies was scheduled, that very evening, to fling open its brand-new, gloriously purple doors— formerly the entrance to my beloved barn—and usher in another flight of tiny perfect children, along with their preened and privileged parents.
 
I was on the return stretch of my route du jour, the sun just gaining a vista over the trees, when a youngster who lives half a mile down my street gave me a thumbs-up and drawled, “Use it or lose it, man!” I might have ignored his insolence had he been pruning a hedge or fetch­ing the newspaper, but he appeared merely to be lounging—and smok­ing a cigarette—on his parents’ hyperfastidiously weed-free lawn. He wore tattered trousers a foot too long and the smile of a bartender who wishes to convey that you’ve had one too many libations.
 
I stopped, jogging in place, and elaborated on my initial remark. “Because you see, lad,” I informed him, huffing rhythmically though still in control, “I have it on commendable authority that dying is hard work, requiring diligence, stamina, and fortitude. Which I intend to maintain in ample supply until the moment of truth arrives.”
 
And this was no lie: three months before, at my daughter’s Memorial Day cookout, I’d overheard one of her colleagues confide to another, in solemn Hippocratic tones, “Maternity nurses love to talk about how hard it is to be born, how it’s anything but passive. They explain to all these New Age moms that babies come out exhausted from the work they do, how they literally muscle their way toward the light. Well, if you ask me, dying’s the same. It’s hard work, too. The final stretch is a marathon. I’ve seen patients try to die but fail. Just one more thing they didn’t bother to tell us in med school.” (Creepy, this talk of muscling one’s way toward the dark. Though I did enjoy the concept of all those babies toiling away, lives on the line, like ancient Roman tunnel work­ers, determined to complete their passage.)
 
As for the youngster with trousers slouched around his bony ankles, my homily had its intended effect. When I finished, he hadn’t a syllable at his service; not even the knee-jerk “Whatever” that members of his generation mutter when conversationally cornered. As I went on my way, energized by vindication, I had a dim notion that the youngster’s name was Damien. Or Darius. I put him at fifteen, the nadir point of youth. Had he been a boy of his age some twenty years ago, I would have known his name without a second thought, not just because I would have known his parents but because in all likelihood he would have mowed my lawn or painted my barn (gratefully!) for an hourly wage appropriate to a teenage boy’s modestly spendthrift habits. Nowa­days, teenage boys with wealthy parents do not mow lawns or paint houses. If they stoop to any sort of paid activity, they help seasoned citizens learn to navigate the baffling world of computers and enter ­tainment modules, charging an hourly wage more appropriate to the appallingly profligate habits of a drug dealer in the Bronx.
 
Damius or Darien might indeed have been the one to coach my own seasoned self through the use of my new laptop computer (a retirement gift that spring from my daughters), and to fleece me accordingly, had I not been the fortunate grandfather of a very intelligent, very kind, ade­quately well-mannered boy of twenty who was, at the time, an honors student at Harvard. A “good boy,” as parents no longer dare to say, cowed by advice from some celebrity pediatrician who’s probably fathered two or three litters with a sequence of abandoned wives. But that’s what Robert was, to me (and still is, or is again, despite everything that’s happened): a Good Boy, on the verge of becoming a solid, produc­tive citizen. “My grandson is a very good boy,” I used to say, with pride and confidence, especially within earshot of his mother.
 
Robert had inherited his mother’s passion for science, and I had begun to assume, with mixed feelings, that he planned to follow in her professional footsteps. A successful oncologist in Boston, Trudy has become marginally famous as a media source whenever some new Scan­dinavian study pops up to hint at anything approaching a cure. One day, watching her as she explained a controversial drug to that life-size Ken doll on the six o’clock news, it occurred to me that my younger daugh­ter entered my living room more often as a guest of NBC than as my flesh-and-blood offspring. I saw Robert far more frequently.
 
Robert stayed in close touch with me as contractors, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians jacked up and tore apart my barn so that it could become the new home of Elves & Fairies, Matlock’s favorite pro­gressive nursery school. (Simply to look out my back windows that sum­mer felt like spying on the public humiliation of a loyal friend, an ordeal I had engineered.) When these callow strangers—few of whom spoke English by choice—were not perpetrating their mutilations, buttress­ings, and vigorous eviscerations upon that stately structure, they treated my entire property like an amusement park. During breaks, they would kick a soccer ball back and forth by the pond, and while there were plenty of other shady spots in which to lounge, they ate their lunch on the steps of my back porch, their laughter and indecipherable chitchat echoing throughout my house. I could not even identify the language they shared. It might have been Tagalog or Farsi.
 
Fortuitously, despite my protests, Robert had insisted on setting up an e-mail account when he tutored me on the use of my laptop. After decades at a job where the King Kong shadow of technology loomed ever larger and darker over the simple work I loved, I had fantasies of a quasi-Luddite retirement: I would revel in the pages of one obscurely significant novel after another, abandoning the world of gigabytes and hard drives. Cursed be the cursors; farewell to iEverything and all its pertly nicknamed apps.
 
In a word, ha.
 
That summer, as it turned out, I found my sleek, alarmingly versatile computer a blessing—chiefly because it meant that I heard regularly from Robert, who was working at a coastal conservation outfit up in Maine. He kept me sane by sympathizing with my fury about everything from the cigarette butts and gum wrappers I found in the forsythia bushes to the dozens of alien soda-pop cans I had to haul, along with my own recycling, to the transfer station. Most insulting was the altered view from my desk: my copper beech so rudely upstaged by a large blue closet concealing a toilet.
 
That Thursday, finally, the blue john was carted away. The workmen were gone. My good deed was coming to fruition, and I was determined to put myself in a positive frame of mind. Yes, I was irritated by the youth in the baggy trousers and all that he personified—but he was just one sign among many that the world was changing its colors without my permission. Yes, I was apprehensive about the looming loss, possibly permanent, of certain privileges I had long taken for granted: peace, privacy, and (my daughter Clover had recently informed me) swimming naked in the pond before dark. But I had been led to expect these vexations. And I was excited to learn, from Robert’s latest e-mail, that he was now back in Cambridge, preparing to start his junior year.
 
So when I came downstairs after showering, reading two chapters of Eyeless in Gaza, and shooting an e-missive to my grandson inviting him to lunch, I was almost completely happy to find my elder daughter in my kitchen. Almost.
 
There she sat, at the same table where she’d started each day for the first seventeen years of her life, eating a bowl of yogurt sprinkled with what looked like birdseed, drinking tea the color of algae, and paging through my copy of the Grange. For the past year, she’d been renting part of a house across town, yet she continued to make herself at home without announcing her presence. I knew that I ought to feel an instinctual fatherly joy—here she was, safe and hopeful at the very least, possi­bly even content—yet most of the time I had to suppress a certain resentment that she had made such a wreck of her life and then, on top of that, made me feel responsible for her all over again.
 
Like her younger sister, Clover hadn’t lived under my roof since a summer or two during college—unless one were to count the recent period (though one would like to have forgotten it) during which she had languished here after the histrionic collapse of her marriage. For six months, until I helped her move across town and convinced my friend Norval to give her a job at his bookstore, she had gone back and forth between my house and her sister’s.
 
“Hey, Daddy.” Clover beamed at me. “How was your run?”
 
“Made it to the Old Artillery,” I said. (Wisely, she paid me no condescending compliments.)
 
She stood. “Can I make you a sandwich?”
 
“Thank you,” I said.
 
“Turkey? Peanut butter? Egg salad?”
 
“Thank you.”
 
Clover laughed her deceptively carefree laugh. At an early age, my daughters learned that I do not like unnecessary choices, yet they tease me with them all the same. My favorite restaurants—if any such remain— are the ones where you’re served a meal, no questions asked (except, perhaps, what color wine you’d prefer). You can carry on a civilized conversation without being forced to hear a litany of the twenty dress­ings you may have on your salad or to pretend you care what distant lake engendered your rainbow trout.
 
As Clover assembled my lunch, she told me in meticulous detail about the last-minute touches she and her new colleagues were putting on the barn to prepare for the open house that night. I sometimes wondered if she could appreciate the depth of the sacrifice I was making—all of it for her.
 
While she twittered on about the final visit from the fire marshal, how she’d held her breath as he peered upward yet again at all those hundred-year-old rafters, my attention wandered to the newspaper, open to the police log. In any given week, the most notable incident in Matlock might be Loud voices reported 2 a.m. on Caspian Way or Pearl earring found under bench at train depot. But then there were such delectably absurd items as Woman apprehended removing lady’s slippers from woods off Mallard Lane or Caller on Reed St. complained wild turkeys blocked access to garage. A recent standout was “Bone­head driver” reported at food co-op transfer site.
 
That week, our fearless enforcers had coped valiantly with a Shetland pony wandering free behind the public library, a 911 hang-up, the report of a weird man on a bike riding along a perfectly public road, a complaint about extensive paper detritus blowing across a hayfield, and a car left idling for twenty minutes at Wally’s Grocery Stop. But then I came to the listings for the previous Saturday, a day of the week that, in the police log, tends to be dominated by reckless driving at the cocktail hour. This time, however, the first entry for Saturday read, Motor vehi­cle vandalized and filled with vegetable refuse reported at 24 Quarry Rd. at 6:05 a.m.
 
I burst out laughing. Clover stopped talking and turned from the counter to face me. “You find vaccination records a source of amusement?”
 
I tapped the paper. “This is priceless. Did you read this?”
 
She struggled not to look annoyed. Carrying a plate on which she’d placed a sandwich made with burlap bread, she looked over my shoulder. I read the item aloud. “ ‘Vegetable refuse’? Now there’s something new.”
 
“You didn’t hear about that?” said Clover.
 
“How would I? I’m no longer on the soirée circuit. I’ve been branded the town curmudgeon.”
 
“You have not. In fact, you are the town savior, in the opinion of seventy-three parents arriving to see their children’s fabulous new school this evening.”
 
“Until someone’s precious little Christopher Robin breaks a toe on the flagstone walk or falls off that fancy jungle gym.”
 
Clover uttered a noise of exasperation, but she spared me the usual dose of her newfound philosophy about the magnetic effects of negative thinking.
 
“But this.” I pointed to the paper again. “This wins a prize.”
 
She sat down across from me and told me that some fellow named Jonathan Newcomb had awakened to find his brand-new Hummer filled with corn husks. “Like, jam-packed with the stuff. And there was this big sign pasted over the entire windshield, and it said, ETHANOL, ANYONE? And they put it on with the kind of glue you can’t get off— in New York, they use it to glue on notices when you don’t move your car for the street cleaner.”
 
“Who is ‘they’?”
 
“The police, Daddy.”
 
“No, I mean the ‘they’ who filled that car with corn.”
 
“Just the husks. Nobody knows.”
 
I laughed loudly. I might even have clapped my hands. “That’s the most creative prank I’ve heard of in ages.”
 
Clover did not partake in my amusement. “Well, Jonathan is on the warpath. He made sure they fingerprinted everything in sight. Like even the hubcaps. He missed a plane, too. His company had an important meeting.”
 
“Wait. Quarry Road? Isn’t Newcomb the fellow who put down three acres of turf where all that milkweed used to grow like blazes? The field where I used to take you and Trudy to see the butterflies? You know that scoundrel?”
 
“He’s a dad,” said Clover.
 
I was baffled by this non sequitur until I realized she was referring to E & F. No doubt Newcomb paid the full, five-figure tuition. Probably times two, for a brace of hey-presto fertility twins.
 
“Can you imagine,” she said, sounding deeply concerned, “getting all that corn silk out of the upholstery?”
 
“No. I cannot imagine that.” I used my napkin to conceal my smile.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

The Widower's Tale
A Novel by Julia Glass
A PANTHEON BOOKS READING GROUP GUIDE
About this Book:

When seventy-year-old Percy Darling allows a progressive preschool to move into a barn on his property, his solitary rural refuge is transformed. He is compelled to reexamine the choices he’s made since his wife’s death three decades ago, in a senseless accident that haunts him still. No longer can he remain aloof from his neighbors, his two grown daughters, or the precarious joy of falling in love. Meanwhile, Percy’s beloved grandson, Robert, a premed student at Harvard, begins to question his own conventional ambitions when confronted by a charismatic roommate who preaches an extreme form of ecological activism. Bringing to life a complacently prosperous world where no one is immune to unexpected change, Julia Glass once again plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly.

About the Author:
Julia Glass is the author of the National Book Award–winning Three Junes, as well as The Whole World Over, and I See You Everywhere. She lives in Massachusetts.

Questions for Discussion:
1. From the stories that the characters remember and tell, what kind of mother (and wife) was Poppy Darling? How would you explain the very different kinds of mothers her two daughters, Trudy and Clover, have become? Discuss the choices these two women have made and how they affect their relationships with their children. And how about Sarah? What kind of mother is she? Does being a mother define any or all of these women?

2. How do Percy’s age, background, and profession shape the way he thinks about the world around him? How does the way he sees himself differ from the way other characters see him? How has being a single father and now an involved grandfather defined him? How do you think he would have been a different father and man had Poppy lived?

3. By the end of the novel, how has Percy changed/evolved?

4. Why do you think Percy chose to avoid romantic or sexual involvement for so many years after Poppy’s death? Is it habit and routine, nostalgia and commitment to his wife, or guilt over her death; or a combination of all three? Why do you think he falls so suddenly for Sarah after all that time alone? Why now?

5. The novel takes place over the course of a year, with chapters varying from Percy’s point of view (looking back from the end of that year) to those of Celestino, Robert, and Ira. Why do you think Julia Glass chose to narrate only Percy’s chapters in a first-person voice, the rest in the third person? (Does this make you think of the way she handled voice in her previous books?) And why do you think, when there are so many important female characters in this novel, that she chose to tell the story only through the eyes of men?

6. What do you think of the allusion in this book’s title to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?

7. This is a novel about family, the intricacies of the intertwining relationships among parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, siblings and cousins, in-laws and girlfriends. Discuss and compare some of the central familial relationships here (particularly those between Percy and the various members of his extended clan). Do any of these relationships ring particularly true to your own family experiences? Which ones fascinate or move you the most?

8. Celestino is an outsider and a loner—in the eyes of the law, an illegal alien—who was brought to the United States by a stroke of good fortune, only to lose his favored status and end up in a precarious situation with little money and no close friends. Discuss the circumstances that bring him into Percy’s circle and the way in which he becomes so important in Robert’s and Percy’s lives? What destiny do you imagine for him beyond the end of the novel?

9. Discuss Celestino and Isabelle’s teenage relationship as compared with the way they view each other once they are reunited as adults. Do you think that it would have worked out differently under other circumstances, or do culture and class sometimes present insurmountable obstacles? Compare Celestino and Isabelle’s youthful relationship with the one between Robert and Clara.

10. What do you think of Robert’s relationship with his mother? Talk about the way he sees her in the college essay he wrote versus the way he sees her after the argument they have in the car the night before Thanksgiving and Robert finds out about the sibling he almost had. How is Robert’s intimate view of Trudy, as her son and only child, different from Percy’s fatherly view of Trudy as one of two daughters? Compare Robert’s and Percy’s different visions of her professional life: Robert’s summer working in the chemo clinic versus Percy’s first visit to the hospital when he seeks Trudy’s advice about Sarah. Is there a generational difference to the way they encounter the world of modern medicine?

11. What about Percy’s relationship with Clover? What do you think about his “sacrifice” of the barn to help her out? Is it entirely altruistic? What are the unintended consequences to their love for each other? Why does Clover resent her father and betray both him and her nephew, Robert, at the end of the novel?

12. Why does Robert, the good student and good son, allow himself to become involved in Arturo’s “missions”? Discuss Robert’s friendship with Arturo and why Arturo is so appealing to Robert. What do you think of the observation that Turo is “of everywhere and nowhere?”

13. What do you think about Turo’s activist group, the DOGS, and their acts of eco-vandalism? Do you agree with Turo that conservation efforts like recycling and organic lawn care aren’t “dramatic enough to make a dent” (p. 148) in society’s lazy, consumerist ways—that true change will come about only through extremism?

14. Discuss the importance of the tree house in the novel. What does it represent, if anything, to each of the four main characters?

15. What do you think of Ira and his relationship with Anthony? How have Ira’s fears influenced his relationships in general? How do you imagine the crisis at the end of the book has changed him, if at all?

16. Homes often seem like characters in Julia Glass novels; compare Percy’s house with key houses in her other novels, if you’ve read them (e.g., Tealing, Fenno McLeod’s childhood house in Three Junes; Uncle Marsden’s run-down seaside mansion in The Whole World Over). Describe Percy’s house and its significance to various members of the Darling family. Discuss its tie to the neighboring house and the revelation at the end about the two brothers who built the houses. Why is this important?

17. How have libraries changed over the course of Percy’s working life, through his youth, his daughters’ youth, and now Robert’s youth? Percy doesn’t seem to approve of the direction libraries are going and the way in which society regards books. Do you?

18. “‘Daughters.’ This word meant everything to me in that moment: sun, moon, stars, blood, water (oh curse the water!), meat, potatoes, wine, shoes, books, the floor beneath my feet, the roof over my head” (p. 108). Compare and contrast Percy’s two daughters.

19. Why is Sarah so evasive and even hostile when Percy confronts her about the lump in her breast—and even after she starts cancer treatment with Trudy? What do you think about her decision to marry her ex-boyfriend when he offers her the lifeline of his health insurance—and to keep this a secret from Percy? What does it say about Sarah and her feelings for Percy? Do you think the relationship, at the end of the book, is salvageable in any form?

20. While visiting a museum, Percy’s friend Norval asks, “So what sort of landscape are you?” Percy replies, “A field. Overgrown and weedy.” Norval then suggests, “Or a very large, gnarled tree” (p. 278). How would you describe Percy? How about yourself; what sort of landscape are you?

21. How is The Widower’s Tale both a tale of our time and a story specific to its place, to New England?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 131 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(30)

4 Star

(38)

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(31)

2 Star

(20)

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(12)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 131 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 24, 2010

    A Tale Told by a Master

    Open Julie Glass' book The Widower's Tale anywhere and you know you're in good hands. The prose is always pitch perfect, from the description of a moonlit night as experienced by Robert, a Harvard student on cross country skis: "The moon stood out from the sky like a medal. It cruised along beside them, calm and vigilant, passing behind tree after tree as their skis hissed through snow on the path that skirted the pond and then branched away into acres of trails winding through Matlock's fairy-tale forest." Or the wonderful description of his female friends as seen by Ira, a gay nursery-school teacher: "The women around Ira were losing it. Their grip, their composure, their stamina, their footing-each falling out of balance in some essential way." Julie Glass spins a sprawling tale of family and relationships with characters so true you feel you know them. This is a book you will take to your heart.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2010

    Excellent Read!!!!!!

    Julie Glass continues to excel at bringing us new and interesting charcters with her latest book The Widower's Tale. Celestino, Robert, Arturo, Ira, Percy's two daughters, etc.... all add color and dimension to the wonderful fabric of this story about Percy Darling, a 70 yr old widowed New Englander, forced to let go of the past at so many levels. I love how Julie so masterfully brings together all the charcters of the book through their somteims intimate, some times distant association with Percy Darling or his wonderul old home and barn in a small town in Massachusetts. This book reminds us of how often in life it is the unexpected or trying times which makes us feel alive. This book is a must read!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 19, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    An enjoyable read.

    This is a lovely story of a 70 year old, long time widower and a retired librarian, Percival Darling, who lives in upscale Matlock, Massachusetts. He realizes that the world is changing, whether he tries to stop it or not. Percival is a witty, intelligent, loveable man but known to be a little cranky and reclusive, who cherishes his family more than anything. As the story progresses, other strong, interesting, believable and likable characters, enter, his two daughters and his Lady- Friend, Robert, Percy's grandson who's in pre-med at Harvard, Cellestino, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, and Ira, a popular teacher who got canned from school because there was a complaint that he was gay. After so many years of self-imposed detachment with women, Percy meets Sarah, a fifty-one year old single mother who he falls head over heels for. There are the many typical complications of life as these people learn to meld and struggle with conflicting ideas, class and individual impulses. As is human nature, each thinks he is right. Great heart and the fine points of living go hand in hand in this real life story. An enjoyable read.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Oh please. . .

    I read the book through but had I lost it on a bus I would not have replaced it nor would I have made an attempt to find out how the story ended. None of the characters were very well drawn. Too many improbabilities and too many convenient plot points. The daughter just happens to be a brilliant oncologist; Ira's boyfriend just happens to be an attorney; some guy just happens to have great insurance and is willing to marry someone so she can get coverage. And really, HE finds the lump in her breast?! Ms. Glass tried to portray the title character as a grumpy curmudgeon whose charm and wit made everyohne love him in spite of his stodgy views and disdain for things modern. But to me he falls flat. As did the book.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2010

    Great writing - Story not believable

    Excellent writer - Beautiful descriptions So why didn't I like the book. I was prepared for a "cannot put the book down" experience. Started fine and then the story (at least in my opinion) became convoluted and not believable at all. Too many situations that simply made no sense. I will list only one - the medical insurance situation - but there are so many others. I stayed with it to the end hoping for the best. Way too many "headline grabbing issues" for my taste. Would not recommend it. And by the way I am a burning liberal and the issues are important but not all together the way they appeared in this book.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2010

    A wonderful novel

    This tale only partly about a widower -- his family and other acquaintances also figure heavily -- is told with humor, pathos, and enormous insight (as always with Glass) into the web of relationships of families and friends. I found the plot of this novel more compelling than those of some of Glass's other works: the too-perfect lives of so may characters could not be sustained; when the bubble of privilege is popped, a very loud and painful noise must result. This book was a pleasure to read -- and I read it as quickly as I could.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Great story!

    I loved this book and I don’t give books 5 star reviews freely. This book captivated me from the very beginning. Most books seem to be written about women and from their point of view. To find this refreshing book that was centered around one elderly man with three strong story lines attached to him by three other men was such a treat. I loved Percy from the first chapter. He was a person I’d love to meet. I enjoy books that have deep characterizations and each of the players in this novel is intricately webbed. The story line feels natural and believable, not exaggerated or overly fictionalized for drama. It just feels, well...real.

    I hated to say good-bye to Percy and his friends and family. I have thought of this book often since I finished. This is what you do when you read a good book yes?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2011

    Loved the language in the book. However, the ending was disappointing compared to the interesting beginning

    When I started reading the story I loved the language. I was excited to be reading a story where the author cared so much about word choice. I really enjoyed the beginning of the story and the introduction of some seemingly interesting characters. I was prepared to enjoy this story from beginning to end. However, about 1/3 of the way into the story it seemed to lose its way. Plot lines came out of nowhere, and as a reader you really stopped caring about many of the characters. As other reviewers have posted, so many things seemed to oddly fall into place. I finished this book, but the ending did not live up to the potential indicated in the beginning. I was really looking forward to reading a very different book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 19, 2011

    Characters you want to dream about

    The Widower's Tale is another of those rare books that you never want to stop reading. I'm hoping for a sequel with less of tedious Clover.

    It would be great to see The Widower's men finally meeting some worthy women.

    Celestino's Isabella could maybe get over her shallow self.

    Robert should stop thinking about Clara. She was way too intrusive, needy, and controlling. Would she have enjoyed a boyfriend invading her privacy by rummaging through her drawers of clothes?

    And Sarah - geez, however we may admire her strengths, she's lied too much and is rudely ungrateful for way too many things. Obviously, she did not deeply love Percy the way he so richly deserves. He'd be a lot happier and more fun with a woman as intelligent, compassionate, kind, and witty as he is - what wonderful dialogue to look forward to as the new couple hopefully finds another place with a pond.
    That harbor is truly uninviting unless the author is foreshadowing a disaster.

    It would also be most welcome if the Elves and Fairies owners would build a strong backyard fence so the darlings cannot reach the tempting pond.

    Gracias!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Brilliant!

    I loved this book and I don't give books 5 star reviews freely. This book captivated me from the very beginning. Most books seem to be written about women and from their point of view. To find this refreshing book that was centered around one elderly man with three strong story lines attached to him by three other men was such a treat. I loved Percy from the first chapter. He was a person I'd love to meet. I enjoy books that have deep characterizations and each of the players in this novel is intricately webbed. The story line feels natural and believable, not exaggerated or overly fictionalized for drama. It just feels, well..real.

    I hated to say good-bye to Percy and his friends and family. I have thought of this book often since I finished. This is what you do when you read a good book yes?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 4, 2011

    disappointed

    I don't give up easily on books, but this one kept me waiting...and waiting... and waiting for some hint of what I thought would be brilliant writing. I liked (didn't love) 3 Junes, so expected at least that level of literary fiction. Halfway through the book I thought about dropping it for something more interesting. Nothing exciting or intriguing happens.... dull, dull, and... disappointing.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 17, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    not as good as The Three Junes

    The book is very readable but doesn't have the depth and detail that I enjoyed in Glass' last book, The Three Junes... I just could never understand what real connection there was between the widower and his new love. It was all too unbelievable.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2011

    Boring

    Too much description about nothing. Could not finish this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 23, 2011

    Disappointing!

    I found this book to be phoney & filled with author "wanna be's". Tried to cover too many topics with no firm resolutions. Characters not believable, trying to be too good.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 8, 2011

    Great read-hard to put down.

    For anyone who enjoys a relaxing, though capturing fiotion novel. Full of interesting characters and a surprising ending..that does not let you down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2011

    Highly Recommended!

    Julia Glass' style of writing is refreshing, clever & insightful. She truly stands out in today's mass-produced literary world. She develops her characters beautifully & weaves them together, and describes the settings so well you feel like you are there. I could not put this book down and eagerly await her next one. It's perfect for book club discussion; there's to much to cover!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 8, 2011

    Difficult to meander through

    I like the characters, and it was much like a soap opera in that every one of them had some dilemma they seemed to be struggling with, but about halfway through I was counting the pages I had left because now I was the one struggling...to get to the end so I could move onto a new book. Too many huge words that I needed a dictionary for, too many characters. I wish there had been more focus on the likeable ones and left the silliness of the political escapades out of it altogether. When I finally did make it to the last page I was so bored with it all that I am sure I most likely lost the entire meaning of the ending because I felt like I was left hanging in the tree house. So hard to decipher. Wish the author would just say what she means.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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