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  • Sep 7, 2010
Widower's Tale is a lovely story, which is at once both simple and complicated. One of its (many) virtues is that it is rich in observations of that quirky animal, the human, but not at a distance -it is full of heart and blessed with enough incident and narrative line to make up two novels. At the center of the novel, and the only character who tells his story at first hand, is Percy, a retired librarian (he worked at Harvard and he lives in an affluent Boston suburb -with one significant exception, this novel is not about have-nots). Percy's wife Poppy died early, in an unfortunate accident. Since then, Percy has shut himself off behind a wall of irony, retreating from messy human involvements. He has kept even his two daughters, whom he loves dearly, at a distance. He just doesn't know how to deal with human emotions any more.

Percy's solitary life changes when he is bamboozled into letting a progressive preschool relocate on his grounds, using the barn Poppy had used years before as a dance studio. He meets new people, against his will makes new friends. His younger daughter folds back into his life when her marriage fails, he meets a gay teacher at the preschool, his grandson Robert (Harvard pre-med) and his roommate Turo help build a beautiful tree house for the school. Ineluctably, Percy is led to reexamine his life and choices. At 71, he takes a lover, the single mother of a student at the school. Complications occur, and near tragedy. His grandson gets involved in an urban guerrilla group who commit environmental "actions" -harmless but disturbing pranks against the affluent, eco-thoughtless residents of Boston and its suburbs. ("Motor vehicle vandalized and filed with vegetable refuse reported at 24 Quarry Rd. at 6:05 a.m.") A prank goes wrong. Robert is implicated and faces jail time. When a lump in her breast turns out to be malignant, Percy's lover reassesses her options and Percy feels betrayed.

Glass is a very good describer of people and of the attitudes and gestures that capture and define their character. Here, early in the book, is Percy's younger, largely clueless daughter Clover, at breakfast:

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 [the local

After reading that passage, I had a pretty good idea what Clover would be like and the rest of the book proved me right. The book has a great deal to say about love and its complications, but it's usually messy love, with no smoothed path to move affairs along. In the end, everything turns out pretty much alright -not perfect, but then, that's life, isn't it?

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About the reviewer
David Keymer ()
Ranked #431
I taught full time in grade school (1 year), high school (8 years) and college (7 years) --first Spanish, then social studies, then history. After I earned my PhD (in history) at Yale, I moved into administration. … more
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Starred Review. Percy Darling, 70, the narrator of Glass's fourth novel, takes comfort in certitudes: he will never leave his historic suburban Boston house, he is done with love (still guilty about his wife's death 30 years ago), and his beloved grandson Robert, a Harvard senior, will do credit to the family name. But Glass (Three Junes) spins a beautifully paced, keenly observed story in which certainties give way to surprising reversals of fortune. Percy is an opinionated, cantankerous, newly retired Harvard librarian and nobody's "darling," who decides to lease his barn to a local preschool, mainly to give his daughter Clover, who has abandoned her husband and children in New York, a job. Percy's other daughter is a workaholic oncologist in Boston who becomes important to a young mother at the school with whom Percy, to his vast surprise, establishes a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Percy's grandson, Robert, falls in with an ecoterrorist group. Glass handles the coalescing plot elements with astute insights into the complexity of family relationships, the gulf between social classes, and our modern culture of excess to create a dramatic, thought-provoking, and immensely satisfying novel.
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ISBN-10: 030737792X
ISBN-13: 978-0307377920
Author: Julia Glass
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Pantheon
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