Monday, October 13, 2008

A Widow for One Year by John Irving (unabridged audio book read by George Guidall)

Is love too strong a word to describe one's feelings toward a great read? Admiration, definitely — I'll even freely admit to affection. But love? I have to imagine that everyone who reads John Irving's A Widow for One Year struggles with that question, simply because it is one of the most perfectly put together pieces of fiction I have yet encountered. I still think about the characters — especially protagonist Ruth Cole — I even miss them.

A Widow for One Year is Ruth's story. It begins when she is four years old, and her portion is tangential in the first third of the novel while Irving tells the story of her parents. Ted Cole is a successful children's book writer and illustrator who has affairs with "young mothers" under the guise of using their children as models.

Ted's relationship with his wife Marion has been over since the grief over the deaths of their two sons, Thomas and Timothy, has made her an emotional zombie. (Ruth's birth was an attempt to repair the loss, but Marion will not allow herself to love her daughter.) Ted hires college student Eddie O'Hare, an aspiring writer, to be his assistant for the summer of 1958. Soon after, Marion begins an affair with the boy, and Eddie soon discovers his job is more than advertised.

The second portion of the book begins in 1990, when Ruth is 36 and a successful writer on her own. She is still greatly affected by the decisions her parents made during her childhood, and is at a reading of her latest novel when she runs into Eddie, now 52 and a less successful writer (all the main characters are writers, yet this never becomes tedious).

During research for her latest novel, intended to be a departure from the semiautobiographical tomes written so far, Ruth gets herself into a situation that tests her to her limits. This thread lasts through the rest of A Widow for One Year, and Irving makes unexpected choices for his characters, never allowing the reader to predict just what they will do next.

I'm fascinated by how skillfully Irving assembled this story of two generations, carefully referring to past events that enhance the present narrative, and deftly paralleling those events with the novels the characters themselves write (all the main characters are professional writers, yet this never becomes tedious) — and especially drawing the story around so it reaches a full circle of sorts.

Also of note is Irving's ability to create even-handed personalities: people who do something despicable one moment and admirable the next, retaining their likeability in the process. Readers will be both literarily satisfied and emotionally moved even while they are crying tears of laughter at a couple of slapstick scenes. John Irving is really a writer who has something for everyone, and A Widow for One Year is the best book of his I've read yet. The audiobook read by the extraordinary George Guidall only enhances the experience. Not only are his characterizations awe-inspiring, but his Dutch pronunciation is immaculate.

A movie was made of the first portion of A Widow for One Year. The Door in the Floor stars Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges as Marion and Ted Cole, respectively, and Elle Fanning as young Ruth.

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