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Nora Webster: A Novel Hardcover – October 7, 2014

3.7 out of 5 stars 493 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2014: Atmospheric and emotional, Colm Toibin’s (Brooklyn, The Master) seventh novel is the story of a forty-year-old widow in 1960s/70s rural Ireland who’s on the verge of slipping back into the isolated life from which her husband had rescued her. Nora Webster is, like Toibin’s best characters, iconoclastic, strong and deep. When she loses her beloved Maurice to a long and horrible illness, she seems beyond help: she resents the neighbors’ well-meaning questions and concerns and she’s so grief stricken she barely notices how her children are suffering. Nora is not entirely likable—a self-centered person mired in depression rarely is. But Nora is also proud, fierce and angry—and slowly, slowly she wins you over. Even more important, she eventually finds a way to save herself. This is not a novel that makes a lot of noise—and yet it’s musical. It has a kind of deliberate, note-by-note crescendo—but very few crashing cymbals—as Nora rediscovers her love of singing, learns how art can help her navigate through grief, and how music can help even the most quiet among us to regain our voice. – Sara Nelson


“A high-wire act of an eighth novel… Toibin’s radical restraint elevates what might have been a familiar tale of grief and survival into a realm of heightened inquiry. The result is a luminous, elliptical novel in which everyday life manages, in moments, to approach the mystical… There is much about Nora Webster that we never know. And her very mystery is what makes her regeneration, when it comes, feel universal.” (Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review)

“[Nora Webster] may actually be a perfect work of fiction… There is no pyrotechny in the writing — just compassion and shrewd insight. Which is where Toibin's brilliance lies… People call Toibin a beautiful writer because they don't know how otherwise to classify such a delicate talent, such empathic simplicity. Some mysteries can't be deciphered by criticism. Colm Toibin is not a beautiful writer, he's merely a great one.” (Darin Strauss, The Los Angeles Times)

"Fascinating... Revelatory... More thoughtful than Emma Bovary and less self-destructive, in the end far and away a better parent than the doomed Anna Karenina for all the latter’s dramatic posturing, Nora Webster is easily as memorable as either—and far more believable. To say more would spoil a masterful— and unforgettable—novel." (Betsy Burton NPR)

“The Ireland of four decades ago is beautifully evoked… Completely absorbing [and] remarkably heart-affecting.” (Booklist (starred review))

“Compelling…an emotionally satisfying read…powerful.” (The Associated Press)

“Toibin’s restraint, sly humor and gentle prose cadence echo those of another Irish master, William Trevor. So does his affection for his characters… How Nora chooses to make her voice heard and how her children find ways to express their own pain provide Nora Webster’s plot and pleasure…a so-called average life can make for a thrilling read…Toibin presents one woman’s life keenly observed and honored with compassion. With Enniscorthy, he also creates a town, constrained and forever behind the times though it is, that feels like the whole world.” (The Miami Herald)

“[A] quietly moving study of a complex character and her ambiguous feelings toward the web of family and neighbors surrounding her in the small town of Enniscorthy…. All his books share precise, restrained prose, which can, in its simplicity, reach elegance.” (Maya Muir, The Portland Oregonian)

“Miraculous… a strikingly restrained novel about a woman awakening from grief and discovering her own space, her own will…extraordinary... [Toibin] portrays Nora with tremendous sympathy and understanding.” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post)

“Toibin artfully shows us a Nora unmoored…This quiet, wrenching novel conceals considerable human turbulence beneath its placid surface. So Toibin has learned well from Henry James…In many ways, Nora Webster would bring an admiring smile to the Master’s lips.” (Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer)

"A deeply moving portrait of the flowering of a self-liberated woman, Nora Webster tells the story of all the invisible battles the heart faces every day." (Buzzy Jackson, Boston Globe)

“Momentous, made with consummate art… It does everything we ought to ask of a great novel: that it respond to the fullness of our lives, be as large as life itself.” (Tessa Hadley, The Guardian)

“Each paragraph of these pages rewards rereading, so deftly are they composed, and so full of pathos and insight.” (Claud Peck, The Minneapolis Star Tribune)

“Richly detailed… Tóibín’s slow pacing results in bright moments of beauty.” (The New Yorker)

“Heart-rendingly transcendent… Mr. Toibin’s prose has an elegant, visceral simplicity.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st edition (October 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439138338
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439138335
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (493 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #98,980 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mr. F. Parker on October 24, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
In a previous review I described Toibin's "The Blackwater Lighthouse" as "easily the best book I have read in a very long time". Unfortunately I cannot say the same about "Nora Webster". At the beginning the eponymous protagonist is the recently widowed mother of four children. The book describes events in her life over the years following her husband's death. During his illness she has relied heavily on his and her siblings to care for the younger two of her children, both boys. The two girls are old enough to look after themselves. After his death she is resentful of the well intentioned attempts of relatives and friends to offer advice and help.

She sells the family's holiday home, gets a job, re-decorates the family home, learns to sing. Meanwhile she seems oblivious to the emotional turmoil being experienced by her children, especially the sons. These events take place between 1968 and '72 in a small town in Toibin's beloved County Wexford. There is some discussion of events in Belfast and Derry as viewed from the Republic. The depiction of life in her workplace, a medium sized purveyor of agricultural supplies, is unflattering, giving this reader a new slant on the notion of "Protestant Work Ethic" as distinct from the attitude, as revealed here, of past generations of Irish Catholics to work.

"The Blackwater Lighthouse" was, I claimed in my review: "never ordinary or boring. The beauty of the prose and the incisiveness of the dialogue make [it] a delight for the reader." "Nora Webster" is the antithesis of that, both ordinary and boring. I found it disappointing in comparison to what I have come to expect from this distinguished writer.
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Format: Hardcover
When we meet Nora, it's some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. The book is set in Tóibín's own birth town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford just at the turn of the decade to the 1970s. This means it's positioned between two of Tóibín's earlier works: Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl sent abroad from the same town as an economic migrant in the 1950s, and The Blackwater Lightship, about three generations of women forced together by grief and trying to overcome old resentments. Although these books are entirely separate from this one in terms of story and characters, Tóibín makes reference to them both early on, and it would not be unreasonable, I feel, to see the three as a loose trilogy, building together to show us the changes in this small old-fashioned society over the decades, especially as they affected women. Brooklyn was set at a time when girls were still expected to conform to traditions upheld by their families and church in terms of their lives and marriages, while in The Blackwater Lightship, Helen has broken almost completely from this society and its traditions, though we see how they can still exert an emotional hold over her. Here, through Nora Webster, we see the midway point - the cusp of feminism if you like, arriving late in this small backwater, when women were beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by parents or husbands.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
It's a modest elegance that pulls you along in this story of 40-ish Irish widow Nora Webster and her family in County Wexford, in Ireland. The gulf between wife and widowhood is daily captured by Nora's inscrutable, withdrawn demeanor and period of emotional turmoil. She is struggling to adjust without her husband, Maurice, who died three months ago. He was a fine teacher and a capable, loving partner, although he didn't share her love of music. It begins circa 1969; no dates are mentioned, but one can assign it by historic events and people, and the story closes three years later.

Over the course of the novel, we settle deeper into the conventions and conceits of Nora's provincial family, and especially Nora herself, as she strives to emerge from her quiet despair and well-meaning but stifling cadre of support. She wants to be left alone with her inner life and her sons (she chose not to have a phone), but the visitors, while trickling to few now, continue to politely intrude. Tóibín's exquisite examination of the quotidian reveals a masterpiece of character and reflection. Reading this was like listening to movements of classical music in a minor key. Many are mentioned in the book, such as Schubert's hymn "To Music;" I was drawn to listen to it. The text, or the context of the novel, would fit neatly inside the hymn.

Nora's two nearly grown daughters, Fiona and Aine, and her two young sons, Donal and Conor, are her primary concerns. The two daughters seem to be confident and established, on to their own futures (although Fiona teaches close to home). Conor, the youngest son, and Donal, a few years older, (with a significant stammer) worry her the most. She wants to provide a steady life for them, but feels periodically inept.
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