'The Widower's Tale': novelist Julia Glass' sprawling saga of a very extended family
"The Widower's Tale," the new novel by National Book Award-winning novelist Julia Glass, is a sprawling saga of one very extended family grappling with class, race, eco-terrorism and the distorting-mirror media. Glass reads Saturday Sept. 18 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Julia GlassThe author of "The Widower's Tale" will read at 4 p.m. Saturday, Elliott Bay Book Co, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
"Why, thank you. I'm getting in shape to die."
Those are the first, attention- demanding words in a new novel by Julia Glass, who won the National Book Award in 2002 for "Three Junes," which was essentially three novellas about one family.
"The Widower's Tale" (Pantheon, 402 pp., $26.95) is more of a saga: a sprawling, mostly engrossing narrative about one very extended family that charges through several decades and survives to the early 21st century — where class, race, eco-terrorism and the distorting-mirror media are major concerns.
Regarded as minor irritants are such phenomena as "uppity NPR," "frigging Facebook" and Larry King. The supporting cast includes a computer genius who made his fortune designing violent video games but is "now retired from the virtual mass-murder business."
As she did in "Three Junes," Glass moves freely through time, filtering and re-imagining the past as she builds to a somewhat anti-climactic finale. The story is told from the viewpoint of the improbably named Percy Darling, a 70-year-old widower who is not quite the geezer/Luddite he seems.
Indeed, he's given his consent to a liberal preschool that moves into his barn near Boston — described at one point as "a crazy nursery-school invasion." And he's amused by the radical vandals whose shenanigans promote an agenda that suggests a Massachusetts version of the Barefoot Bandit.
The central characters include a committed gay couple, Ira and Arthur, who struggle against local homophobia, and an illegal immigrant, Celestino, who pines for a lost love while he builds an elegant treehouse and evades the authorities. Almost saintly in the purity of his concerns, victimized by the xenophobic nature of the times, Celestino gradually registers as the book's most sympathetic character.
Also crucial to the narrative are Percy's long-dead wife, Poppy, who occasionally turns up as if she were more than a ghostly presence, and their grown children, Clover and Trudy (whose full name, almost never used, is "Truthful Darling").
Percy's charming grandson, Robert, allows himself to become part of the heightened political situation. He chooses not to know about the latest calamity planned by his destructive roommate, Turo, who takes pride in the publicity they generate. "We are on YouTube, dude," he tells Robert.
Is Robert, in the words of one character, "a moth to the flame of groupthink"? Should he be held accountable for his actions? Was it just this kind of "radical righteousness" that led to Poppy's premature death?
Glass doesn't have many answers for the questions she poses. "A Widower's Tale" sometimes strains to seem hip, the storyline can fail to surprise and some of the characters come off as stock types. But when she's at her best, she can justify reaching for the stars.
"Oh, the invisible webs of the cosmos," exclaims Percy, noting just how large a role "coincidence" plays in the story he's become part of.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.