53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2000
I have read almost all of John Irving's novels and have been thoroughly entertained by all of them. This novel is no exception. It was over 500 pages long yet I was able to read it very quickly. Unlike some other readers, it kept my attention to the end. I agree with others, though, that it is no Owen Meany or Ciderhouse Rules. I thought Marion, Ted, and Eddie were wonderfully wrought, believeable, and interesting characters. However, I found the protagonist, Ruth, to be pretty superficial. The only understanding I had of her character was that she had wonderful, large breasts. (I may have liked the book even better if her breasts were not mentioned so frequently.) I thought her character was the most interesting at age four. Futhermore, I found it difficult to see what the point was to this novel. What kind of social commentary is he making? Big breasted women are superior? Tragedies really screw up families? Ruth's gradual understanding of her mother's reasons for leaving her seems obvious and forced. Although I have these criticisms, I do give the novel four stars for its entertainment value. The story line was creative and the foreshadowing actually helped me stay interested. It was a good read, although I would not consider it a great literary achievement.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2005
John Irving has once again written a story with fully realized, complex characters. Those who have read his previous books will find him delving into familiar themes: sexual coming of age, unspeakable tragedy, and the seedier side of European culture (in this case, Amsterdam's red light district). The results are mixed, with the beginning of the book far more interesting and satisfying than the end (small wonder the movie "The Door in the Floor" is based only on the first half of Irving's tome).
The story begins in the summer of 1958 on Long Island. Sixteen year old Eddie O'Hare takes a job working an assistant in the home of children's author/illustrator Ted Cole. It's a sad household with Ted and his wife, Marion, struggling to cope with the deaths of their two teenage sons years earlier. Marion is especially depressed and is unable to show any affection towards their young daughter, Ruth. She's also obsessed with the many pictures of her late sons that hang throughout the house. Ted dotes on Ruth, but is a flagrant womanizer, using his celebrity to attract mothers and their daughters into his studio to "pose" for him. Things become even more complicated when Marion has an affair with young Eddie.
Were the story to remain focused on the odd triangle of Marion, Ted and Eddie, it would stand alone as one of Irving's best novels. The relationships are complex and engaging, and Marion's inability to move on after the deaths of her sons is heart wrenching. Irving, however, chooses to make "A Widow for One Year" Ruth's story, following her into adulthood where she becomes successful as an author (as does Eddie on a smaller scale), but mostly unsuccessful in her personal relationships. It's a poor choice as Eddie, Ted and especially Marion are far more interesting characters. After taking a sordid and unnecessary turn through the red light district of Amsterdam, Ruth's story runs out of steam in a predictable and, sadly, emotionally flat ending.
First half: 5 stars
Second half: 1 star
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2000
John Irving has again given us a sprawling, multi-generational saga of personal heartache and how family members come to grips with tragedy. Like many of his other novels, the characters in Widow for A Year suffer extreme loss, and yet this novel does not kill off characters as abruptly and carelessly as some of Irving's former novels (like the plane crash in Hotel New Hampshire, or the devastating car crash in Garp).
Essentially the themes of the novel are grief and sex, not necessarily in that order. The novel begins with 4 year old Ruth Cole walking in on her mother, who is in bed with a teenage writer's assistant hired by her estranged husband Ted, a writer of cildren's books. The mother, Marion, is overwhelmed with grief from the loss of her teenage sons in a car accident that predated the action in the novel, and Irving skillfully fills in a few details about the crash for much of the book, until Ted describes the accident in devastating detail later.
The grief affects Ted and Marion in different ways, and while he goes on with his life and continues writing children's horror stories, Marion simply cannot handle life in the house she shared with her boys. Some of the most effective passages in the novel concern the multitude of framed photographs taken of the late Cole boys scattered on the walls of their house in the Hamptons, and the efforts of sister little Ruth, (who was born after her brothers' death), to reimagine the shots after they are removed by her mom.
Marion ultimately becomes a strangely unsympathetic character, and her forced reappearance toward the end of the novel seems forced and contrived. Like another reviewer mentioned, Irivng, for some odd reason, often times paints a very limited picture of some characters and places but never misses an opportunity to remind us of the size of Ruth's breasts.
Nevertheless, the novel is entertaining, and since nearly every character in the story is a writer, Iriving gets to have some fun providing exerpts of each character's work. If you are an Irving fan, you will enjoy this book and get wrapped up in the story. However it is no Owen Meany.
38 of 45 people found the following review helpful
A Widow for One Year has got to be my favorite John Irving novel. Many of his others, while I have enjoyed them, have put me off a little because the characters and/or the plot is a bit over the top, just too quirky for me. Widow, while imaginative and entertaining, never gets to that too much stage. It's a big novel, spanning about 40 years and has a satisfying, yet never hokey or corny ending. The characters, of course, are a bit quirky in their way, but their quirkiness is somehow more believable than in other Irving novels. The story is a lot of fun, and, because most of the characters are writers, allows Irving to explain and comment on the writing process. I felt at some times he was answering his own critics while discussing the criticism of his character-writers. He has fun with the whole thing, though, and never takes it too seriously, which is part of what makes this novel so enjoyable. Widow is really a human story about loss and how far some of us will go for love. Enjoy.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 1999
I loved this book! A Widow For One Year is a story of a group of writers whose lives are intertwined through love affairs, friendships, and kinship. The fact that the characters are writers is a key component of the novel and the aspect that I enjoyed most. Irving takes the reader on a literary joy ride with characters and situations that are believable and exciting. He tells this story using a multi-voiced approach and he is able to change voice without any interruption to the story. At times he's narrative and at times he's providing information about the characters or plot though a work of fiction written by one the characters. Technically speaking, the book is written as perfectly as humanly possible (no doubt a Writing Fiction course could be taught with this novel as a guide) As a reader, the novel is extremely engaging; (no I didn't want to put it down). As a writer, the novel is informative and demonstrative (literally) of how good fiction is created. I'm certain that I'll be a better writer as a result of reading this book and unfortunately, for some authors, I'll be a lot more critical as a reader as well.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2004
Occasionally heartbreaking, funny and insightful, Irving's "Widow For One Year" nonetheless suffers from vast stretches of boring details about circumstances and people who engender very little intrigue. Additionally, the book's story depends on wholly improbably human situations, discomforting sexual bizarreness, and characters whose words and behavior reflect a cruelty that ultimately rings untrue. For all its flaws, though, the novel does contain its handful of classic passages, the best of which features Eddie's explanation for his sexual interest in elderly women:
"I try to see the whole woman," Eddie Said to Hannah. "Of course I recognize that she's old, but there are photographs -- or the equivalent of photographs in one's imagination of anyone's life. A whole life, I mean. I can picture her when she was much younger than I am -- because there are always gestures and expressions that are ingrained, ageless. An old woman doesn't have to see herself as an old woman, and neither do I. I try to see the whole life in her. There's something so moving about someone's whole life."
But these charming and lyrically powerful bursts of prose did little to cure my bewilderment at knowing that Irving spent four years working on this novel, routinely journeying to Amsterdam to research various places and characters, and after all that, ends up with believable characters who do completely unbelievable things. Particularly, Harry, the street cop of Amsterdam, ends up falling in love with Ruth, the novel's hero, going to Paris with her, moving to the states and agreeing to marry her ALL WITHIN WEEKS OF MEETING THE WOMAN.
Similarly, another customer reviewer below named Rebecca has her finger on the problem when she suggests that the novel expects its readers to accept the nonchalance with which Marion, Ruth's mother, copes with the loss of her sons by having a sexual affair with a 16-year-old boy because he looked like one of her dead sons. Huh? These incestuous implications compounded by Eddie's interest in sleeping with women who are in their 70s and 80s reveal a rather peculiar moralization of sexual intercourse (despite Eddie's eloquent explanation).
Equally distracting is Irving's apparent conviction that compelling dialogue must include an inordinate spewing of obscenities. At times, Ruth and Hannah are so incorrigibly and inexplicably foul-mouthed that they morph together into the same implausible character, echoing that generic postmodern sarcasm that makes it so impossible to distinguish between the characters of Delillo or even, at times but for different reasons, Virginia Woolf.
I also applaud Rebecca for pointing out how crudely Irving has us accept that Ted Cole, a man whose self-indulgence is an incurable destructive force in the lives of everyone around him (including his daughter), suddenly decides to leap all the way to the other side of the emotional spectrum, tormented by such compulsion over the consequences of his promiscuity in his daughter's life that he kills himself? Please. Irving ought to have spent more time developing these jagged dramatic devices rather than embellishing for page after tedious page on such wholly uninteresting events as Ruth's book-signings or Harry's innocuous interest in the prostitutes of Amsterdam.
What saves this book is Irving's powerful and subtle sense of humor as well as the novel's occasional flares of wisdom and warmth. Similarly rewarding is the taut suspense Irving builds throughout the novel as Marion's anticipated return to her daughter after having left her life for 37-years slowly comes about. It is here that Irving's novel is worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose "Love in a Time of Cholera" unravels a tale of love so deeply ingrained in the heart that it endures half a century of separation, bringing the couple together again and, sexually, for the very first time. Predictably, Marquez manages Irving's own plot with more tact and patience, and I would easily recommend giving Marquez's book a look before "Widow For One Year."
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Feel free to classify me as a big John Irving fan. In my opinion, A Prayer of Owen Meany is one of the best books I've ever read. Other great books by Irving include the Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp.
Unfortunately, this book isn't in the same class as the above-metnioned Irving classics. First off, it's hard to warm to a book that involves writers as its main characters. There's something self-centered when a writer spends hundreds of pages writing about other writers and it shows in this book. Part of the problem is that most of the characters aren't very likeable. The main protagonist is Ruth Cole who is saddled with a mother who abandons her (who eventually becomes a crime fiction writer), a philandering father (who is a children's author), a teen age boy (who grows up to be a novelist) that has an affair with her mother, a sexually free best friend (a journalist), and two husbands (one of whom is a literary agent). Ruth evenutally grows up and becomes a novelist of some renown.
This book is broken into three parts with the first depicting Ruth's very young childhood. The following two books deals with Ruth as an adult. While all three of the books are tenuously linked, there are some disjointed components of the story that don't always match. The books go through Ruth's marriages, career and even a bizarre murder in Amsterdam's Red Light district that changes Ruth's life forever. Regarding the three books, the first one lures you in with attractive sexuality, the second keeps the reader with its plot twists, and the third is an overly long conclusion and denouement that tried to tie up a number of loose ends.
The good thing is that Irving does his usual great job in describing events and drawing the reader into the story. Unfortunately, as you are drawn into the story, you find that you don't have a great deal of respect for most of the characters in the book. In fact, the most attractive and likeable character is the only one who isn't a writer or involved in the literary field and that's a beat cop in Amsterdam. Perhaps Irving is longing for a simpler life that is unavailable to writers who are forced to create?
Finally, in addition to disliking the characters I came away disappointed because Irving's motive and message in writing this book seem so unclear. While it's an engaging story, I'm not sure there was much of a point. In the end, I was happy to have something that kept me interested on the train to work for a few days but disturbed that such a great writer failed to make clear why he even bothered.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2005
This novel ranks with the best of Irving's catalog. It's an epic and yet a page turner. A movie (The Door in the Floor) has been made out of the drama of the first section, all about teenaged Eddie O'Hare's life on Long Island as a writer's assistant to the philandering and alcoholic Ted Cole. It is there that Eddie's life becomes entangled with 4-year old Ruth Cole's, as he has an affair with her mother (who is separated from Ted). After this charming summer tale, the novel moves forward into Eddie, Ruth, and Ted's lives 32 years later, and another set of dramatic entanglements, spanning the globe, takes place. It is no wonder that the film version could only tackle a portion of this story--there is no way to condense the amazing lives of these vivid characters into a standard Hollywood plot.
Every time I read this book, I am struck by how Irving responds to his own critics through the Ruth character. As an adult, Rule Cole is a successful author in her own right, much on the scale of fame Irving achieved. She responds to critics about her use of "signature eccentricities" and "repeated themes," and Irving is the master of repeated plot elements throughout his novels (boarding schools are repeated here, as well as prostitution). Ruth responds to criticism about a book that centers on the life of a writer, which is precisely what A Widow for One Year is. I get the impressed Irving uses the character of Ruth to express a lot of his emotion about being a writer.
This story ranks right up there with Garp and Owen Meany. It is a must-own for any Irving fan--a book to be treasured again and again.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2001
A great entertainment. But is it a great novel? I really don't think so; now, can i explore and explain the difference? In "Owen Meany" Irving created a great plot and compelling characters who drag the reader along with them as they live into the future. Here, the plot is strong, though not as forceful as "Owen Meany", but the characters, i'm afraid, lack something. The most compelling character in the book is the one who is least in it: Marion, the wife who seduces the young Eddie O'Hare and then disappears for the next four hundred and twentysix pages. The heroine, Ruth, Marion's daughter, a successful writer, is attractive, well explained (the omniscient author), but not as strong a person as the missing Marion. Her friend Hannah, the sexual animal, is understandable (we know her motivations), but not attractive. Eddie is sympathetic, but also pathetic. I cannot say i dislike the book, because i enjoyed it; i do find Irving a distracting writer sometimes, though ~ i feel as though he is writing a "French Lieutenant's Woman" but doesn't have the same ability as (not less, just different from) Fowles. Perhaps i am actually expecting too much; to be a great entertainment should maybe be enough for a book; and i'm not sure that anything could have changed this into a great novel as well, in my opnion. At any rate, i shall continue to read Irving, and expect to enjoy his books.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 1999
The first third of this novel--Eddie's account of his affair with Marion when he was sixgteen--the engine that drives the rest of the book--is magical--on a par with THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. It's darkly imaginative, charming, and impossible to put down. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel doesn't live up to the beginning. It's still an interesting read. All of the characters have gotten stuck in some way or another--unable to really get on with their lives as the result of their past. It's interesting reading to see how everything works out--but Irving doesn't hold me the way he does at the beginning of the novel.