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A Novel

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On Sale: September 07, 2010
Pages: 448 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37943-6
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Synopsis

Seventy-year-old Percy Darling is settling happily into retirement: reading novels, watching old movies, and swimming naked in his pond. But his routines are disrupted when he is persuaded to let a locally beloved preschool take over his barn. As Percy sees his rural refuge overrun by children, parents, and teachers, he must reexamine the solitary life he has made in the three decades since the sudden death of his wife. With equal parts affection and humor, Julia Glass spins a captivating tale about a man who can no longer remain aloof from his community, his two grown daughters, or—to his great shock—the precarious joy of falling in love.

Excerpt

1

"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.
Julia Glass

About Julia Glass

Julia Glass - The Widower's Tale

Photo © Dennis Cowley

Julia Glass latest novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, is being published by Pantheon in April. She is the author of Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award for Fiction; The Whole World Over; I See You Everywhere, winner of the 2009 Binghamton University John Gardner Book Award; and The Widower’s Tale. Her essays have been widely anthologized. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Glass also teaches fiction writing, most frequently at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Praise

Praise

“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

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction and discussion questions that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Widower’s Tale, National Book Award-winner Julia Glass’s captivating new novel.

About the Guide

When seventy-year-old Percy Darling allows a progressive preschool to move into a barn on his property, his solitary rural refuge is transformed. He is compelled 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 the precarious joy of falling in love. Meanwhile, Percy’s beloved grandson, Robert, a premed student at Harvard, begins to question his own conventional ambitions when confronted by a charismatic roommate who preaches an extreme form of ecological activism. Bringing to life a complacently prosperous world where no one is immune to unexpected change, Julia Glass once again plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly.

About the Author

Julia Glass is the author of the National Book Award–winning Three Junes, as well as The Whole World Over, and I See You Everywhere. She lives in Massachusetts.

Discussion Guides

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. 172) 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. 125). 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. 322). 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?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)


  • The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass
  • July 12, 2011
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $15.95
  • 9780307456106

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