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Synopsis

Ruth Cole is a complex, often self-contradictory character--a "difficult" woman.  By no means is she conventionally "nice," but she will never be forgotten.

Ruth's story is told in three parts, each focusing on a crucial time in her life.  When we first meet her--on Long Island, in the summer of 1958--Ruth is only four.

The second window into Ruth's life opens in the fall of 1990, when Ruth is an unmarried woman whose personal life is not nearly as successful as her literary career.  She distrusts her judgment in men, for good reason.

A Widow for One Year closes in the autumn of 1995, when Ruth Cole is a forty-one-year-old widow and mother.  She's about to fall in love for the first time.

Richly comic, as well as deeply disturbing A Widow for One Year is a multilayered love story of astonishing emotional force.  Both ribald and erotic, it is also a brilliant novel about the passage of time and the relentlessness of grief.

Excerpt

Summer 1958
The Inadequate Lamp Shade


One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking--it was coming from her parents' bedroom. It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her. Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.

It was not as simple a matter as her parents having separate bedrooms; that summer they had separate houses, although Ruth never saw the other house. Her parents spent alternate nights in the family house with Ruth; there was a rental house nearby, where Ruth's mother or father stayed when they weren't staying with Ruth. It was one of those ridiculous arrangements that couples make when they are separating, but before they are divorced--when they still imagine that children and property can be shared with more magnanimity than recrimination.

When Ruth woke to the foreign sound, she at first wasn't sure if it was her mother or her father who was throwing up; then, despite the unfamiliarity of the disturbance, Ruth recognized that measure of melancholy and contained hysteria which was often detectable in her mother's voice. Ruth also remembered that it was her mother's turn to stay with her.

The master bathroom separated Ruth's room from the master bedroom. When the four-year-old padded barefoot through the bathroom, she took a towel with her. (When she'd been sick with the stomach flu, her father had encouraged her to vomit in a towel.) Poor Mommy! Ruth thought, bringing her the towel.

In the dim moonlight, and in the even dimmer and erratic light from the night-light that Ruth's father had installed in the bathroom, Ruth saw the pale faces of her dead brothers in the photographs on the bathroom wall. There were photos of her dead brothers throughout the house, on all the walls; although the two boys had died as teenagers, before Ruth was born (before she was even conceived), Ruth felt that she knew these vanished young men far better than she knew her mother or father.

The tall, dark one with the angular face was Thomas; even at Ruth's age, when he'd been only four, Thomas had had a leading man's kind of handsomeness--a combination of poise and thuggery that, in his teenage years, gave him the seeming confidence of a much older man. (Thomas had been the driver of the doomed car.)

The younger, insecure-looking one was Timothy; even as a teenager, he was baby-faced and appeared to have just been startled by something. In many of the photographs, Timothy seemed to be caught in a moment of indecision, as if he were perpetually reluctant to imitate an incredibly difficult stunt that Thomas had mastered with apparent ease. (In the end, it was something as basic as driving a car that Thomas failed to master sufficiently.)

When Ruth Cole entered her parents' bedroom, she saw the naked young man who had mounted her mother from behind; he was holding her mother's breasts in his hands and humping her on all fours, like a dog, but it was neither the violence nor the repugnance of the sexual act that caused Ruth to scream. The four-year-old didn't know that she was witnessing a sexual act--nor did the young man and her mother's activity strike Ruth as entirely unpleasant. In fact, Ruth was relieved to see that her mother was not throwing up.
And it wasn't the young man's nakedness that caused Ruth to scream; she had seen her father and her mother nakedÑnakedness was not hidden among the Coles. It was the young man himself who made Ruth scream, because she was certain he was one of her dead brothers; he looked so much like Thomas, the confident one, that Ruth Cole believed she had seen a ghost.

A four-year-old's scream is a piercing sound. Ruth was astonished at the speed with which her mother's young lover dismounted; indeed, he removed himself from both the woman and her bed with such a combination of panic and zeal that he appeared to be propelled--it was almost as if a cannonball had dislodged him. He fell over the night table, and, in an effort to conceal his nakedness, removed the lamp shade from the broken bedside lamp. As such, he seemed a less menacing sort of ghost than Ruth had first judged him to be; furthermore, now that Ruth took a closer look at him, she recognized him. He was the boy who occupied the most distant guest room, the boy who drove her father's car--the boy who worked for her daddy, her mommy had said. Once or twice the boy had driven Ruth and her babysitter to the beach.

That summer, Ruth had three different nannies; each of them had commented on how pale the boy was, but Ruth's mother had told her that some people just didn't like the sun. The child had never before seen the boy without his clothes, of course; yet Ruth was certain that the young man's name was Eddie and that he wasn't a ghost. Nevertheless, the four-year-old screamed again.

Her mother, still on all fours on her bed, looked characteristically unsurprised; she merely viewed her daughter with an expression of discouragement edged with despair. Before Ruth could cry out a third time, her mother said, "Don't scream, honey. It's just Eddie and me. Go back to bed."

Ruth Cole did as she was told, once more passing those photographs--more ghostly-seeming now than her mother's fallen ghost of a lover. Eddie, while attempting to hide himself with the lamp shade, had been oblivious to the fact that the lamp shade, being open at both ends, afforded Ruth an unobstructed view of his diminishing penis.
At four, Ruth was too young to ever remember Eddie orhis penis with the greatest detail, but he would remember her. Thirty-six years later, when he was fifty-two and Ruth was forty, this ill-fated young man would fall in love with Ruth Cole. Yet not even then would he regret having fucked Ruth's mother. Alas, that would be Eddie's problem. This is Ruth's story.

That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any "presence" she detected in either her mother or her father--and that, after her mother abandoned her and her father (and took with her almost all the photos of her lost sons), Ruth would wonder why her father left the picture hooks stuck in the bare walls. The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer--for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photographs had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the actual pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed. That Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; from her earliest memory, she was forced to imagine them.

It was one of those automobile accidents involving teenagers that, in the aftermath, revealed that both boys had been "good kids" and that neither of them had been drinking. Worst of all, to the endless torment of their parents, the coincidence of Thomas and Timothy being in that car at that exact time, and in that specific place, was the result of an altogether avoidable quarrel between the boys' mother and father. The poor parents would relive the tragic results of their trivial argument for the rest of their lives.

Later Ruth was told that she was conceived in a well-intentioned but passionless act. Ruth's parents were mistaken to even imagine that their sons were replaceable--nor did they pause to consider that the new baby who would bear the burden of their impossible expectations might be a girl.

That Ruth Cole would grow up to be that rare combination of a well-respected literary novelist and an internationally best-selling author is not as remarkable as the fact that she managed to grow up at all. Those handsome young men in the photographs had stolen most of her mother's affection; however, her mother's rejection was more bearable to Ruth than growing up in the shadow of the coldness that passed between her parents.

Ted Cole, a best-selling author and illustrator of books for children, was a handsome man who was better at writing and drawing for children than he was at fulfilling the daily responsibilities of fatherhood. And until Ruth was four-and-a-half, while Ted Cole was not always drunk, he frequently drank too much. It's also true that, while Ted was not a womanizer every waking minute, at no time in his life was he ever entirely nota womanizer. (Granted, this made him more unreliable with women than he was with children.)

Ted had ended up writing for children by default. His literary debut was an overpraised adult novel of an indisputably literary sort. The two novels that followed aren't worth mentioning, except to say that no one--especially Ted Cole's publisher--had expressed any noticeable interest in a fourth novel, which was never written. Instead, Ted wrote his first children's book. Called The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls, it was very nearly not published; at first glance, it appeared to be one of those children's books that are of dubious appeal to parents and remain memorable to children only because children remember being frightened. At least Thomas and Timothy were frightened by The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls when Ted first told them the story; by the time Ted told it to Ruth, The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls had already frightened about nine or ten million children, in more than thirty languages, around the world.

Like her dead brothers, Ruth grew up on her father's stories. When Ruth first read these stories in a book, it felt like a violation of her privacy. She'd imagined that her father had created these stories for her alone. Later she would wonder if her dead brothers had felt that their privacy had been similarly invaded.

Regarding Ruth's mother: Marion Cole was a beautiful woman; she was also a good mother, at least until Ruth was born. And until the deaths of her beloved sons, she was a loyal and faithful wife--despite her husband's countless infidelities. But after the accident that took her boys away, Marion became a different woman, distant and cold. Because of her apparent indifference to her daughter, Marion was relatively easy for Ruth to reject. It would be harder for Ruth to recognize what was flawed about her father; it would also take a lot longer for her to come to this recognition, and by then it would be too late for Ruth to turn completely against him. Ted had charmed her--Ted charmed almost everyone, up to a certain age. No one was ever charmed by Marion. Poor Marion never tried to charm anyone, not even her only daughter; yet it was possible to love Marion Cole.

And this is where Eddie, the unlucky young man with the inadequate lamp shade, enters the story. He loved Marion--he would never stop loving her. Naturally if he'd known from the beginning that he was going to fall in love with Ruth, he might have reconsidered falling in love with her mother. But probably not. Eddie couldn't help himself.
John Irving

About John Irving

John Irving - A Widow for One Year

Photo © Jane Sobel

The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award in 1980, was John Irving's fourth novel and his first international bestseller. Irving's novels are now translated into thirty-five languages, and he has had nine international bestsellers. In One Person is John Irving's thirteenth novel.

Praise

Praise

“BY TURNS ANTIC AND MOVING, LUSTY AND TRAGIC, A Widow for One Year is bursting with memorable moments.”
San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle

“WISELY AND CAREFULLY CRAFTED . . . Irving is among the few novelists who can write a novel about grief and fill it with ribald humor soaked in irony.”
USA Today

“IRVING’S MOST ENTERTAINING AND PERSUASIVE NOVEL SINCE . . . THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.”
The New York Times

“DEEPLY AFFECTING . . . The pleasures of this rich and beautiful book are manifold. To be human is to savor them.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A POWERFUL TALE TO ADD TO AN ALREADY EXTRAORDINARY BODY OF WORK FROM A GREAT AMERICAN WRITER.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“MASTERFUL . . . POWERFUL . . . Irving’s best books are Dickensian in their rich characters, plotting and language—and of course, in moving the reader. On the final page of A Widow for One Year . . . I literally burst out crying.”
—Orlando Sentinel

“A sprawling 19th-century production, chock full of bizarre coincidences, multiple plot lines, lengthy digressions, and stories within stories. . . . An engaging and often affecting fable, a fairy tale that manages to be old-fashioned and modern all at once.”
The New York Times

“[Irving’s] characters can beguile us onto thin ice and persuade us to dance there. His instinctive mark is the moral choice stripped bare, and his aim is impressive. What’s more, there’s hardly a writer alive who can match his control of the omniscient point of view.”
The Washington Post Book World

“In the sprawling, deeply felt A Widow for One Year, John Irving has delivered his best novel since The World According to Garp. . . . Like a warm bath, it’s a great pleasure to immerse yourself in.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Enchantingly balances the haunting tug of grief with the lure of enduring love . . . Irving’s rich narrative and his sense of play result in a delicious collusion between author and reader.”
Raleigh News & Observer

“WONDERFULLY SATISFYING . . . [Irving] tells this story with so much delight that it’s difficult for the reader not to be infected with the same kind of joy in the reading.”
The Dallas Morning News

“As compelling as Garp . . . Which is to say it’s terrific. . . . His most moving book . . . John Irving is one of America’s great storytellers.”
San Jose Mercury News

“Comic and tragic, brilliant, and moving . . . Crammed with all the wonderful characters, quirky situations and memorable coincidences that have made [Irving] so beloved by readers . . . A terrific read that will make you its willing slave, so captivating is its allure.”
Chattanooga Free Press

“A feast . . . One of this storyteller’s richest works. . . . A rich, resonant tale.”
Austin American-Statesman

“Irving is a writer whose keenest sensibilities have always fallen somewhere between Dickensian verbosity and Mad magazine mischief.”
Rocky Mountain News

“Full of humor, heartbreak and lust.”
Newsday

“POWERFUL . . . A MASTERPIECE.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[A] sprawling, complex family history . . . Wisely and carefully crafted.”
USA Today

A Widow for One Year delivers everything John Irving fans have come to expect from the beloved author of The World According to Garp: a funny, sad, sprawling saga full of oddball yet believable characters.”
Glamour

“There’s only one thing wrong with John Irving novels: They have to end. Readers won’t easily part with the characters in his latest work, A Widow for One Year. . . . [An] exhilarating talent.”
The Tennessean

“Moving and memorable . . . This novel marks a return to the deep but gentle examination of human nature that made Garp so successful.”
San Diego Union-Tribune

“May be Irving’s best book . . . A remarkable achievement.”
Sunday Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Reader's Guide copyright © 1999 by The Ballantine Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc.

About the Guide

"Irving's most entertaining and persuasive novel since his 1978 bestseller, The World According to Garp."
--The New York Times

"DEEPLY AFFECTING . . . The pleasures of this rich and beautiful book are manifold. To be human is to savor them."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review

"COMPELLING . . . John Irving is at the peak of his considerable powers in A Widow for One Year, his most intricate and fully imagined novel. . . . Irving's narrative spans 37 years in the life of Ruth Cole and the people around her. . . . By turns antic and moving, lusty and tragic, A Widow for One Year is bursting with memorable moments. . . . A testament to one of life's most difficult lessons: In the end, you just have to find a way to keep going."
--San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle

"[A] SPRAWLING, COMPLEX FAMILY HISTORY, A Widow for One Year will appeal to readers who like old-fashioned storytelling mixed with modern sensitivities. Wisely and carefully crafted, it's a novel about grief, the kind that lingers, and about families, the ones we're born into and ones we make for ourselves. Irving is among the few novelists who can write a novel about grief and fill it with ribald humor soaked in irony."
--USA Today

"JOHN IRVING IS ARGUABLY THE AMERICAN BALZAC, OR PERHAPS OUR DICKENS--a rip-roaring storyteller whose intricate plot machinery is propelled by good old-fashioned greed, foolishness and passion."
--The Nation

"A POWERFUL TALE TO ADD TO AN ALREADY EXTRAORDINARY BODY OF WORK FROM A GREAT AMERICAN WRITER."
--Richmond Times-Dispatch

About the Author

John Winslow Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942. He is the author of nine novels, among them The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Son of the Circus. Mr. Irving is married and has three sons; he lives in Toronto and in southern Vermont.

Discussion Guides

1.         A passionate and complex theme throughout the book is the concept of a writer's imagination. "Eddie O'Hare, who was doomed to be only autobiographical in his novels, knew better than to presume that Ruth Cole was writing about herself. He understood from the first time he read her that she was better than that" (p. 204). What role does imagination, lack of it, even fear of it, play in the lives and careers of the central characters?

2.         Ruth, as a novelist, sees books as inventions based on both borrowed and imagined experiences--not necessarily personal ones. However, her best friend, Hannah, a journalist, presumes that all novels are substantially autobiographical; she sees in Ruth's books a "Hannah" character, who is the adventurer, as well as a "Ruth" character, who holds herself back. Explore the ideas of fiction and imagination and the autobiographical ingredients of writing.

3.         What is the meaning and symbolism of the "feet" photo? Why do you think it became kind of a talisman for Ruth? What emotions does the photo evoke in you as a reader?

4.         Discuss the humor and the pathos of Ted Cole's oeuvre. What about the humor and pathos of Ted himself? Where does Ted's true imagination lie--if not in his writing? Is Ted's real talent--his passion, his art--the seduction of the prettiest and unhappiest of young mothers? Doesn't Ted pursue his seductions as passionately as his daughter will pursue her writing?

5.         During that fateful summer, Eddie, the aspiring young writer, found his voice. Marion gave him his voice. "It was losing her that had given him something to say. It was the thought of his life without Marion that provided Eddie O'Hare with the authority to write" (p. 112). Discuss the life and writing career of Eddie O'Hare: his brilliance when being truly autobiographical, and his mediocrity when it came to believability in things that were "imagined."

6.         When Ted tells Eddie the "story" of Thomas and Timothy's accident, he tells it in the third-person removed. "If Marion had ever told the story, she would have stood so close to it that, in the telling of it, she would have descended into a final madness--a madness much greater than whatever madness had caused Marion to abandon her only living child" (p. 154). Examine the madness. Discuss Ted's ability--and Marion's inability--to detach.

7.         How is Eddie, who appears as the most benign of characters, often the most powerful? For example, beginning with the restaurant "fingerprinting" scene (p. 240), he gives Ruth the gift of her past, of her mother, of other realities. How does he open the door to her future?

8.         Examine: "Ruth thought of a novel as a great, untidy house, a disorderly mansion; her job was to make the place fit to live in, to give it at least the semblance of order. Only when she wrote was she unafraid" (p. 267).         Discuss the idea that the books in Ruth's life and the characters in them were more fixed in Ruth's life than the flesh-and-blood people closest to her--namely, her father and her best friend.

9.         Why do you think Ruth decides to marry Allan? Why was he so safe? How was he different from her "type" of man--a type that disturbed her so?

10.         Discuss the theme of humiliation in her novel-in-progress as well as Ruth's own unconscious quest for humiliation. Examine the themes of women, humiliation, and control. In Amsterdam, Ruth writes in her diary: "The conventional wisdom is that prostitution is a kind of rape for money; in truth, in prostitution--maybe only in prostitution--the woman seems in charge" (p. 338). What do you think of this?

11.         Examine the scene after she witnesses the murder. "At last she'd found the humiliation she was looking for, but of course this was one humiliation that she wouldn't write about" (p. 375).

12.         Examine the powerful car scene before Ted's suicide. As Ted is driving, Ruth reveals the shocking incident with Scott. Her tale is one of degradation. Does it have the desired effect on her father? What does she want? Was this scene about revenge--about giving back the hurt done to her? Can matters of families, of love and hate (her father is the one she most loves and hates in her life), ever really be understood? Of course this scene mirrors the driving scene where Ted tells Ruth the details of her brothers' death. Discuss.

13.         What changes occur in Ruth after she becomes a widow? How do these changes finally free her to fall in love at last?

14.         What kind of emotions do you feel at the ending of the book? How have the characters of Ruth, Marion, and Eddie found, in essence, their way back? How has Marion, through her books, come to terms with her grief? When she reveals to Eddie that "grief is contagious," is she effectively saying that her absence from her daughter's life was the only way she could love her or the only way she could not destroy her daughter?


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