Monday, July 18, 2011

Fourth Novel is a Finely Tunned "Tale" of Wealth

Julia Glass is the author of a wonderful book called “Three Junes” (which you can always get a copy of at the bookstore “Three Lives,” read it to find out why). Last fall she published her latest novel “The Widower’s Tale.” It’s largest and perhaps only real flaw is the title. The book is about much more than the charming, cantankerous, widowed Percival Darling and the title oozes a treacly sentiment that is absent in the novel.

Glass is partial to male narrators and the four we have in “The Widower’s Tale” are a diverse bunch. The aforementioned Percy lives on the property where his wife died 30 odd years ago in an accident for which he thinks he is to blame. The novel opens as his barn is being transformed into a fancy pre-school, a surprising decision fueled by his desire to ground his eldest daughter. Ira is one of the teachers at Elves and Fairies. He is damaged, recovering from the harsh loss of his previous job as a result of false accusations stemming from his sexuality. Then there is Celestino, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala whose life looked immeasurably brighter before he fell in love with his patron’s daughter years before. The youngest protagonist is Robert, Percy’s grandson, a bright boy at Harvard, blithely following his mother’s footsteps toward med-school.

Circumstance and humanity bring these lives into the same orbit in crucial ways. Percy’s careful widowhood is reshuffled by a new love and the pleasures, risks and heartbreaks associated. He is the only character given a first person narrative and his voice is often hilarious in its high brow, dry humor. The reader experiences Percy’s awakening in an immediate manner, and we find ourselves puzzled and righteously appalled by the privilege that has altered his small town into something he finds absurdly gentrified.

Robert, Celestino, and Ira’s stories are interesting but they lack the vibrancy of Percy’s voice. Each character’s transformation is crucial and fleshes out another dimension of current society.

The novel is not just of men. But they are our lenses, a perspective Glass manages quite well, faltering only with the college age slang Robert and his roommate Turo mouth. Almost across the board Glass’s women are tough. As mothers, doctors, scholars, and even lovers, they have a somewhat fierce outer layer that their men want to penetrate. I liked these women well enough, but my understanding of them was less complete, more fractured, and I wanted to be better acquainted with their weaknesses and their drive.

Issues of the moment are central to the narrative. The novel encompasses capitalist greed, gay marriage, illegal immigration and the seepage of technology into the way we live. This is not done obliquely or in a preacher’s tone. The subjects’ presence never feels forced (unlike the racial and class crossings that occur in the popular “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson). Percy’s wealthy Boston suburb becomes the victim of a mysterious eco-terrorism group, clever pranks he initially finds amusing. The impact of these attempts to right an imbalance in wealth and spotlight an abuse of resources is both startling and thought provoking. The logic might be sound, but the execution is badly misdirected.

What I ultimately appreciated about Glass’s novel is that very little is neatly packaged at its conclusion. Like many novels before it, it ends with a wedding. But the event felt more like a beginning of something or a continuation for all the characters. There were no clear answers or sure destinies, but the possibility of transformative opportunities just might be on the horizon.