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The Widower's Tale

The Widower's Tale

3.4 132
by Julia Glass

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A rich and suspenseful novel from the award-winning author of Three Junes and I See You Everywhere
In a quirky farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling enjoys a vigorous but mostly solitary life—until, in a complex scheme to help his oldest daughter through a crisis, he allows a progressive


A rich and suspenseful novel from the award-winning author of Three Junes and I See You Everywhere
In a quirky farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling enjoys a vigorous but mostly solitary life—until, in a complex scheme to help his oldest daughter through a crisis, he allows a progressive preschool to move into his barn. The abrupt transformation of Percy’s rural refuge into a lively, youthful community compels him 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, to his shock, the precarious joy of falling in love. 
Meanwhile, Percy’s beloved grandson Robert, a premed student at Harvard, joins his visionary roommate in a series of environmental “actions” targeting the well-to-do; they begin as pranks but escalate insidiously, with dire consequences for Robert’s family and the people around them, including a Guatemalan gardener and a gay preschool teacher, whose lives intersect fatefully with those of the Darlings. With equal parts affection and satire, Julia Glass spins a powerful tale about the multigenerational loyalties, rivalries, and secrets of a family, inhabitants of a complacently prosperous world where no one is immune to unexpected change. Yet again, she plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly. 

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

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.)
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.

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
From the Publisher
“Marvelous. . . . A delicate, nuanced, socially conscious story of one family’s near-destruction, and how a slew of seemingly bad moves reconnects it.” —USA Today

“An enchanting story of familial bonds and late-life romance. Expect to be infatuated with Glass’s protagonist … he of generous soul, dry wit, and courtly manners.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Fans of Three Junes will find this fourth novel just as absorbing. It’s like reading an involving letter from a long-lost friend.” —People
“This energized, good-humored novel . . . approaches the ties of kinship with the same joyfully disruptive spirit that animated [Glass’s] previous books. . . . Satisfyingly cleareyed and compassionate.”—The New York Times Book Review

“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.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Glass continues her streak of lovely and thought-provoking novels. . . . Irresistible.”
The Denver Post
“Glass propels her characters through a world that is sometimes dire but also sweetly normal and often joyful. . . . Once again, she’s proved to be a master of milieu, an old French word that means ‘middle place’—the place in which all her characters, young and old, continue to engage with the world and where she, a novelist in mid-career, keeps refining their stories.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Beautifully sensitive. . . . The Widower’s Tale is about the rub between old values and new times, and the importance of adapting. In the tradition of Jane Eyre, it builds to a conflagration, a crisis that shakes everyone out of their complacency. But Glass quickly smothers the flames of catastrophe, for her vision is essentially more hopeful than tragic.” —Los Angeles Times
“Julia Glass knows how to create a good page-turner. . . . Another entertaining—and often wise—read.” —Providence Journal
“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
“Compassionately written. . . . Both a knowing study of the complications presented by everyday life and a paean to the progress they can engender.” —The Boston Globe
“A novel with richly layered drama.” —The Miami Herald
“Both funny and heartbreaking, [Glass’s] fourth novel will leave readers examining their own choices and priorities.” —BookPage
“Richly detailed. . . . Too funny for soap operatics. . . . Best savored for the unshowy way Glass dramatizes the hum-and-thrum of the everyday and the compassion she brings to describing the painful recalibrations every character must make when that everyday explodes in their faces.” —The Austin Chronicle
“Alluring descriptions, along with discerning characters, intricate plot lines, and the tackling of several complex issues offers an empathetic yet lively read.” —The New York Journal of Books
“Reading Julia Glass’s fourth novel . . . feels a bit like sinking into a just-right feather bed. The National Book Award-winner writes in a style that’s literate without being pretentious, compelling without being in a rush, and emotional without turning sentimental.” —Psychology Today
“Glass’s novels feel a bit like looking out a tiny attic window onto a broad vista. At first, they seem like small domestic dramas, but they open up to consider expansive topics that might have seemed far outside their scope.” —Bookreporter.com
“Beautifully written, full of quirky and entertaining characters, and filled with the complexities of everyday life. . . . It’s a novel you read and immediately want to pass along to a friend.” —The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
“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 Reviews (starred)
“Endearing characters . . . in a swirl of complications will keep Glass fans absorbed and win over new readers.” —Good Housekeeping
“Glass spins a beautifully paced, keenly observed story in which certainties give way to surprising reversals of fortune. . . . A dramatic, thought-provoking, and immensely satisfying novel.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“An admirable chronicler of the complex social webs that compose our common life.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“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)
“An immensely satisfying and entertaining read. . . . Glass deftly handles each [plot thread] with keen observations and grace.” —The Observer’s Very Short List
“A masterful exploration of the secret places of the human heart. . . . There is no denying the author’s grasp of human drama, as scenes and ideas return to the reader’s mind at quiet times after the last page is turned. In the end, that which demands much gives much in return. As in our own lives, we recognize that the final scene is not the end of this story. We return to this place we call real life, enriched with new understanding.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
9.56(w) x 11.40(h) x 1.26(d)

Read an Excerpt


"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.

Meet the Author

JULIA GLASS is the author of Three Junes, winner of the National Book Award; The Whole World Over; and I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her short fiction has also won several prizes, and her personal essays have been widely anthologized. She lives in Massachusetts.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
March 23, 1956
Place of Birth:
Boston, Massachusetts
B.A., Yale College, 1978; Scholar of the House in Art, Summa Cum Laude, 1978

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