three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
By: 
Julia Glass
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0

A-The Widowers TaleJulia Glass is the author of The Whole World Over (3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006), I See You Everywhere ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2009), and Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award.

The Story: Skinny-dipping in his pond is one of the few simple pleasures that Percy Darling, a cantankerous 70-year-old widower living in the picturesque town of Matlock, Massachusetts, enjoys. The retired Harvard librarian has lived as a recluse for decades, ever since his two daughters moved away and his wife, Poppy, died in a tragic accident 30 years earlier. But his peaceful existence comes to a grinding halt when he agrees to lease part of his land to the liberal Elves & Fairies preschool, where one of his daughters comes to teach. Suddenly, Percy finds himself surrounded by a diverse community, reminding him of what it means to be part of a neighborhood and a family.
Pantheon. 416 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307377920

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The story is a bit cheerier than Three Junes, but just as eloquently and compassionately written. ... With writing as rich as this, the getting there is an end in itself." Matthew Gilbert

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Glass is an absorbing writer, meticulous in her descriptions of setting. ... Here, life's accidents and connections, on both the grandest and most intimate scale, offer the chance to find out who we are and even, possibly, to prove ourselves better than we thought." Tricia Springstubb

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] satisfyingly cleareyed and compassionate view of American entitlement and its fallout. ... One might wish that The Widower's Tale did more than just edge up to the nexus of serious issues--a blithe American affluence sustained by worldwide poverty, draconian immigration laws, the ever-present specter of environmental disaster--that drives its plot." Maria Russo

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Glass seems to have chosen characters and their conflicts with a kind of liberal-issues checklist in hand. Gay rights? Check! Health-insurance insanity? Economic disparity? Check! Eco-terrorism? Check! ... The novel's flaws were, for me, more than nits to pick." Karen Sandstrom

Oregonian 2 of 5 Stars
"Good literature seduces us into addressing issues bigger than ourselves the way a warm bath feels good while it cleans us. I kept wishing that Glass had paid better attention to the seduction, to the temperature of the water--it might have made me care more about the issues." Elizabeth Lopeman

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Glass' third-person narrations and descriptions often seem to be trying too hard, straining for cleverness or literary effect. The characters are often guilty of the same, with the result that much of the dialogue consists of comments no actual human being would ever be found uttering." Troy Jollimore

Critical Summary

In The Widower's Tale, Glass continues to explore the intricate ties of family and friendship that have become her trademark. Some critics felt the novel was just as evocative, timely, and emotionally gratifying as Three Junes, and they enjoyed the novel's different voices and timely issues. Others, however, couldn't get past the inauthentic dialogue and overuse of clichés, such as the droll gay couple who also love whipping up gourmet cuisine. Additionally, several reviewers felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of issues introduced, from health insurance and gay rights to illegal immigration and ecoterrorism, and felt that Glass may have better succeeded at examining just a few of these more deeply. To sum it up, perhaps a trip to the public library may be a less risky venture than a hardcover purchase.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

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?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Pantheon. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.