Doug Parker is a widower at age twenty-nine, and in his quiet town, that makes him the object of sympathy, curiosity, and in some cases even unbridled desire. But Doug has more urgent things on his mind, such as his sixteen-year-old stepson, Russ, a once-sweet kid who is now getting into increasingly serious trouble. As Doug starts dipping his toes into the shark-infested waters of the second-time-around dating scene, it isn’t long before his new life is spinning hopelessly out of control, cutting a harrowing and often humorous swath of sexual missteps and escalating chaos across a suburban landscape. How to Talk to a Widower is a stunning novel of love, lust, and loss that USA Today hails as “hilarious but emotion-packed.”
Praise for How to Talk to a Widower
“[A] winning tale about a man raising his stepson after his wife dies.”—People
“Part of Widower’s charm is that there’s no happily ever after, no Cinderella-catches-the-fella ending.” —USA Today
“A mixture of mourning and mockery . . . surprisingly moving.”—Entertainment Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
Russ is stoned. You can see it in the whites of his eyes, which are actually more of a glazed pink under the flickering yellow porch light, in the dark discs of his dilated pupils, in the way his eyelids hang sluggishly at half-mast, and in the careless manner in which he leans nonchalantly against the pissed-off cop that is propping him up at my front door, like they’re drinking buddies staggering out into the night after last call. It’s just past midnight, and when the doorbell rang I was sprawled out in my usual position on the couch, half asleep but entirely drunk, torturing myself by tearing memories out of my mind at random like matches from a book, striking them one at a time and drowsily setting myself on fire.
“What happened?” I say.
“He got into a fight with some other kids down at the 7-Eleven,” the cop says, holding on to the top of Russ’s arm. And now I can see the lacerations and bruises on Russ’s face, the angry sickle-shaped scratch across his neck. His black T-shirt has been stretched beyond repair and torn at the neck, and his ear is bleeding where one of his earrings was snagged.
“You okay?” I say to Russ.
“Fuck you, Doug.”
It’s been a while since I last saw him, and he’s cultivated some facial hair, a rough little soul patch just beneath his bottom lip.
“You’re not his father?” the cop says.
“No. I’m not.” I rub my eyes with my fists, trying to gather my wits about me. The bourbon had been singing me its final lullaby, and in the freshly shattered stillness, everything still feels like it’s underwater.
“He said you were his father.”
“He kind of disowned me,” Russ says bitterly.
“I’m his stepfather,” I say. “I used to be, anyway.”
“You used to be.” The cop says this with the expression of someone who’s tasted some bad Thai food, and gives me a hard look. He’s a big guy—you’d have to be to hold up Russ, who at sixteen is already over six feet tall, broad and stocky. “You look young enough to be his brother.”
“I was married to his mother,” I say.
“And where is she?”
“He means she’s dead,” Russ says contemptuously. He raises his hand and lowers it in a descending arc, whistling as it goes down, and then hissing through his teeth to generate the sound effect of an explosion. “Buh-bye.”
“Shut up, Russ.”
“Make me, Doug.”
The cop tightens his thick fingers around Russ’s arm. “Keep quiet, son.”
“I’m not your son,” Russ snarls, trying in vain to tear himself away from the cop’s iron grip. “I’m not anybody’s son.”
The cop presses him easily up against the doorpost to quash his flailing arms and then turns back to me. “And the father?”
“I don’t know.” I turn back to Russ. “Where’s Jim?”
Russ shrugs. “Down in Florida for a few days.”
“What about Angie?”
“She’s with him.”
“They left you alone?”
“It was just for two nights. They’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Angie,” the cop says.
“His father’s wife.”
The cop looks annoyed, like we’re giving him a headache. I want to explain everything to him, show him that it’s really not as screwed up as it all sounds, but then I remember that it is.
“So the kid doesn’t live here?”
“He used to,” I say. “I mean, this was his mother’s house.”
“Look,” the cop says wearily. He’s a middle-aged guy, with a graying caterpillar of a mustache and tired eyes. “Whatever he’s been smoking, I didn’t find any of it on him. My shift is just about over, and I have no desire to spend another hour processing the kid over a stupid parking-lot scuffle. I’ve got three boys of my own. He’s being a hard-ass now, but he cried in the squad car and asked me to bring him here. So this is how it works. I can take him to the station and write him up for a handful of misdemeanors, or you can let him in and promise me that it will never happen again.”
Russ just stares sullenly at me, like this is all my fault.
“It will never happen again,” I say.
“Okay, then.” The cop releases Russ, who whips his arm away violently and then bolts into the house and up the stairs to his room, shooting me a look of unrefined hatred that pierces the blubber of my drunken stupor like a harpoon.
“Thank you, Officer,” I say to the cop. “He’s really a good kid. He’s just had a tough year.”
“Just so you know,” the cop says, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “This isn’t the first time he’s been in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
The cop shrugs. “The usual stuff. Fighting mostly. Some vandalism. And he’s obviously no stranger to the weed. I don’t know your deal here, but someone needs to start enforcing a curfew, and maybe get him some counseling. The kid is headed for trouble.”
“I’ll talk to his father,” I say.
“Next time, he gets booked.”
“I understand. Thanks again.”
The cop gives me a last skeptical look, and I can see myself through his eyes, bedraggled, unshaven, bloodshot, and half crocked. I’d be skeptical too. “I’m sorry about your wife,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, closing the door behind him. “You and me both.”
Upstairs, Russ has crawled under the covers in the darkness of what used to be his room. Everything is just as he left it, because, as with just about every other room in the house, I haven’t disturbed anything in the year since Hailey died. The house is like a freeze-framed picture of the life we once had, snapped in the instant before it was obliterated. I stand backlit in the hallway, my shadow falling on the bends and folds of his comforter as I try to come up with something to say to this strange, angry boy to whom I am supposed to somehow feel connected.
“I can hear you breathing,” he says without lifting his face off the pillow.
“Sorry,” I say, stepping into the room. “So, what was the fight about?”
“Nothing. These assholes just started talking shit to us.”
“They go to your school?”
“Nah, they were older guys.”
“I guess it’s hard to put up too much of a fight when you’re stoned.”
“Right.” He rolls over and lifts his head to sneer at me. “Do you really feel like you’re the best person to give me a lecture on the evils of drugs, Captain Jack?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think so,” he says, rolling back onto his pillow and burrowing his face into his arms. “Look, it’s been a long fucking night, so if you don’t mind . . .”
“I lost her too, Russ,” I say.
He makes a sound into his arms that might be a derisive snort or a smothered sob, I can’t quite tell. “Just close the door on your way out,” he whispers.
You never know when you’re going to die, but maybe something in you does, some cellular consciousness that’s aware of the cosmic countdown and starts making plans, because on the last night of her life, Hailey surprised me by wearing a bloodred dress, cut low and tight in all the right spots. It was almost as if she knew what was coming, knew that this would be our last night together, and she was determined to keep herself from fading too quickly into the washed-out colors of memory.
I couldn’t stop looking at her, my eyes dwelling for longer than usual on the familiar curves and contours of her body, still lithe and toned after one child and almost forty years, on the soft pockets of her exposed clavicles, the satiny white surface of her skin, and I wanted her in exactly the way you generally don’t want someone you’ve been sleeping with for almost three years. I found myself considering the practical implications of sneaking away from the table to meet in the bathroom for a quickie, pictured us in the confines of the locked bathroom, chuckling at our audacity between deep kisses as I pressed her up against the wall, the red dress pulled up over her waist, her smooth bare legs wrapped around me, pulling me into her. That’s what happens when you spend enough years living on your own with premium cable.
But even as the mental image aroused me to the point of discomfort beneath the table, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. For one thing, there was no way for both of us to slip away inconspicuously. For another, I was twenty-eight and Hailey almost forty, and while I liked to think that our sex life was good, better than most probably, quickies in public restrooms were no longer part of our repertoire. Actually, they’d never really been part of it to begin with, since I’m somewhat germ phobic, and the thought of exchanging fluids in the presence of all that random bacteria would be more than I could handle.
On the drive home, my hand slid higher and higher up the smooth vanilla expanse of her bare thigh, and by the time we’d pulled into the garage she was in my pants. I pulled up her dress in the darkness and bent her over the hood of the car, still hot and pinging from the drive, and then we were hot and pinging and we were teenagers again, except we were good at it, and we actually owned the car.
We must have been trailing afterglow like fairy dust when we came into the house a short while later, because Russ paused his video game, gave us a funny look, and then shook his head and told us to get a room. “No need,” Hailey said, grabbing my hand and heading for the stairs. “We’ve already got one.”
“Gross!” he said and, having rendered his judgment, went back to nonchalantly annihilating the undead on the wide- screen. And Hailey and I went upstairs to break the laws of God and the state of New York, and we went at it deliriously, with a renewed passion, kissing and licking and drinking and devouring each other. Like there was no tomorrow.
We’d been married for just under two years. I had left the city and moved in with Hailey and Russ, into the small Colonial she’d lived in with her first husband, Jim, until she found out he was cheating on her and kicked him out. And I was still getting used to the transformation, to being a husband in suburbia instead of a prowling dick in the city, to being a stepfather to a sullen teenager and the youngest member of the Temple Israel softball team, to dinner parties and backyard barbecues and school plays. I was still getting used to all of that when she got on a plane to see a client in California and somewhere over Colorado the pilot somehow missed the sky. And sometimes that life we were only just starting seems as tenuous to me as a fading dream, and I have to convince myself that it was actually real. I had a wife, I say to myself, over and over again. Her name was Hailey. Now she’s gone. And so am I.
But we’re not going to talk about that right now, because to talk about it I’ll have to think about it, and I’ve thought it to death over the last year. There are parts of my brain that are still tirelessly thinking about it, about her, an entire research and development department wholly dedicated to finding new ways to grieve and mourn and feel sorry for myself. And let me tell you, they’re good at what they do down there. So I’ll leave them to it.
Reading Group Guide
When twenty-seven year old Doug Parker traded in his bachelor pad for a house in the suburbs, complete with a teenaged stepson, he never expected that two years later he would suddenly lose the woman who meant everything to him. Without beautiful, confident Hailey to guide him through the challenges of now becoming a true surrogate father to her son Russ, Doug is on his own to navigate their new course.
And while he knows he can’t travel back to the way things were, it will take a bossy twin sister under his roof, and some colorful mistakes, before Doug will realize how far he has come, and appreciate how far he will go.
1. Doug suffered a tragic and sudden loss, but in the fall-out of this event hasn’t always behaved the way one would hope to if in his shoes. Do you empathize with Doug or is his self-destructive behavior a detriment to his character? What allowances would you give to someone who is grieving, and when do their actions become unforgivable?
2. What are Doug’s views on marriage both before and after meeting Hailey? Do they change after he loses his spouse? Do you foresee him eventually remarrying?
3. Following his stroke, Doug’s father underwent a personality change. Describe how this changed his relationship with his family, especially with his son. Does Doug see him as a role model; why or why not? Discuss the parallels between father and son after a traumatic event.
4. How would the story be different if it were not told in the first-person narrative? Is Doug’s omniscient perspective at the heart of the novel? How would the tone change if it was being told from someone outside looking in at Doug?
5. How does the novel’s suburban setting play a role? What is the author’s attitude about living in the suburbs? Do you think the portrayal of the town is meant to be satirical?
6. The author is a man–were you reminded of this while reading the novel? Would a female author writing this story have as effectively portrayed the macho attitude and competitiveness that exists between the male characters?
7. “I had a wife. Her name was Hailey. Now she’s gone. And so am I.” This passage appears on pages 74, 141, 282, 329, and 330 and serves as a mantra. When Doug repeats it, do you think this “reality check” provides him with comfort or is it destructive to his recovery? Does its’ meaning, or his reasons for evoking the mantra, evolve?
8. Do you feel that Doug overcomes his grief? Does it change him; if so, how? Does grieving necessarily change a person? Can it be treated like other ailments that one conquers, or is it a permanent part of the sufferer, something that continues to live within them, ever changing but present?
9. Discuss the significance of setting. How are family dynamics illustrated by their surroundings and locale? Is Hailey’s home and her belongings another character that haunts this story–the bra left hanging on the bathroom doorknob, the bottles of perfume collecting dust on her dresser?
10. How do the author and his protagonist use humor both in the sense of it being a literary tool, and as a way the characters relate to each other?
11. Doug’s extended family is as endearing as they are dysfunctional. How do they compare to your ideal definition of a family?
12. Compare Doug’s relationships with his two sisters–Claire, his twin, and Debbie, the youngest. What role does being a twin serve in Doug’s life? How does Debbie’s wedding bring out the individual struggles of many of the characters in the novel?
13. Discuss betrayal as it manifests itself across a wide range of connections–between spouses, friends, and siblings.
14. “The course of true love is never straight.” (page 338) This is true for several of the characters. Do you think it is a universal truth? Is love so simple that people turn it into something which is complicated, or is it as complex as the people it involves?
15. Are you optimistic at the end of the novel that life will improve for Doug?