In a historic farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling is settling happily into retirement: reading novels, watching old movies, and swimming naked in his pond. His routines are disrupted, however, 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. No longer can he remain aloof from his community, his two grown daughters, or, to his shock, the precarious joy of falling in love.
One relationship Percy treasures is the bond with his oldest grandchild, Robert, a premed student at Harvard. Robert has long assumed he will follow in the footsteps of his mother, a prominent physician, but he begins to question his ambitions when confronted by a charismatic roommate who preaches—and begins to practice—an extreme form of ecological activism, targeting Boston’s most affluent suburbs.
Meanwhile, two other men become fatefully involved with Percy and Robert: Ira, a gay teacher at the preschool, and Celestino, a Guatemalan gardener who works for Percy’s neighbor, each one striving to overcome a sense of personal exile. Choices made by all four men, as well as by the women around them, collide forcefully on one lovely spring evening, upending everyone’s lives, but none more radically than Percy’s.
With equal parts affection and satire, Julia Glass spins a captivating tale about the loyalties, rivalries, and secrets of a very particular family. Yet again, she plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly.
"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?”
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.
Excerpted from The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass. Copyright © 2010 by Julia Glass. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
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)