The fear of and yearning for change
Fans of Julia Glass’ beloved Three Junes will feel a sense of familiarity when they dive into The Widower’s Tale, the author’s fourth novel. The stories share similar plot points: in both, the matriarch of a family dies young, leaving a husband and children behind. In both, a widower unexpectedly falls for another woman. In both, Glass creates a slowly unfolding, yet fully rendered, portrait of a family.
But don’t think this book is just a rehash of past work. The tone is more satiric—you can look forward to amusing passages on everything from freeganism to “books as bytes.” And the protagonist, 70-year-old Percy Darling, is distinct from Paul McLeod, the widower of Three Junes.
“There's a way in which you cannot create good fiction without inflicting pain on your characters.”
In a telephone conversation from her home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Glass said, “When I started writing The Widower’s Tale, I was trying to describe Percy’s character, and I said he’s like a cross between Paul McLeod and Malachy Burns. He has that razor edge to his wit.” Never matter if you haven’t read Glass’s National Book Award-winning debut from 2002—although if you have, you’ll understand why that combination will be a delight to fans. Paul, an elderly Scottish newspaper publisher, is a bit hapless. Music critic Malachy is cranky and clever.
Glass “always begins a story with a character,” and she says her best ones are pulled from some corner of her soul.
In this story, Percy was that character. He is also the center of the tale, which chronologically begins when his wife, Poppy, drowns in a pond. Percy is left to raise his two daughters, Clover and Trudy, who grew up to be very different women. As an adult 30 years after her mother’s death, Clover has a free spirit and big heart, although she’s also troubled, having walked out on her husband and two children during a breakdown. Trudy is chief of breast oncology at a major hospital and is organized and serious.
Percy was born out of several of Glass’ experiences—one being a consciousness of her “resistance to the modern world.” (“I’m like the only writer on the planet who doesn’t have a website and refuses to join Facebook,” she says.) She also drew from her move to Massachusetts, her home state and the setting for The Widower’s Tale, after years of living in New York.
When she returned to her hometown, Glass at first felt like the place hadn’t changed—“very rural, quite privileged, but with a kind of faux-rustic liberal quality to it.” In the time she lived there, she discovered that it had become more affluent than it was during her childhood. “There were certain . . . I call them millennial attitudes that had taken hold,” she said. “I found myself disturbed that this very hallowed place in my life had changed.” Percy is similarly disturbed by the changes in Matlock, his fictional town—or “enclave,” as he quips in the book.
In Glass’ words, her novel is about “the fear of change as juxtaposed against the yearning for change.” For Percy, a retired Harvard librarian, the impetus for change in his life is the opening of Elves & Fairies, a progressive preschool that moves into the barn in his backyard. When the preschool moves in, Percy’s solitary life is disturbed and he falls in love with the mother of a student. Percy’s world is further rocked when the woman is diagnosed with cancer.
Because Glass didn’t want to write about only “looking at the world as this relentlessly changing place from the point of view of someone old and curmudgeonly,” she asked herself, what is the flip side of that coin?
“Whether you’re talking about global warming or pollution or the ocean or automotive technology, the sense that we must change or we’re doomed seems to me far stronger than it has been at any other time in my life,” she said.
The character who embodies this attitude is Robert, Trudy’s 20-year-old son. Robert is a pre-med student at Harvard and becomes involved with a radical environmental group. By the end of the novel, his life is completely altered. Without giving too much away, Glass explains, “Sometimes bad things happen to good characters, and Robert is a good character. He suffers a very benign character flaw, which is that he’s easily drawn in by other people’s passion.”
Like in each of Glass’ three previous novels, The Widower’s Tale is told from multiple perspectives, including Percy’s and Robert’s. Though Glass considered telling the story from a sister’s voice, she ultimately decided that much of the book is about “the absence of a woman in Percy’s life.” So, there are no female narrators.
Parts of the story are also told by Ira, a gay man who teaches at Elves & Fairies, and by Celestino, an illegal immigrant who does yard work in Matlock. Both of these characters become intertwined with Percy’s family and home, and both face discrimination and heartbreak.
When asked about forcing Percy and the people in his universe to suffer, Glass joked that “characters are like voodoo dolls.” She explained: “You stick in the pins, maybe you take the pins out. But there’s a way in which you cannot create good fiction without inflicting pain on your characters.”
That said, The Widower’s Tale ends hopefully. “That’s important to me,” said Glass. “This novel has ultimately less darkness and tragedy than a couple of my other books. I think it’s more comic. But even the best comic novels include sorrow and heartbreak; that’s what gives a kind of pungent edge to the humor.”
Want more on The Widower's Tale? Check out Eliza Borné's 'behind the interview' blog post.
Author photo by Dennis Cowley.