Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Widow For One Year by John Irving

Composing a novel, is like the construction the interior architecture of the house you live in. Other people will pass through and say, Oh, it’s a nice house but what a hideous window over the kitchen table.’ Only a writer really lives in a novel. So much of what works best about it are things that people who come to dinner never know about or see”(Interview 1). John Irving is an author and a master storyteller who illustrates his vivid tales through detailed and exact writing. John Irving’s A Widow For One Year is an intricate narrative of several love stories. In the opening scene, Ruth Cole, the main female character, at age four, walks in on her mother, Marion, and Eddie, a sixteen-year-old, having sex. This novel is divided into three sections about Ruth’s life: her childhood in the Hamptons, her success as an author, and her experience as a widow on the verge of falling in love. The story begins in the summer of 1958, during a failing marriage between her parents, Ted and Marion. The second section of the book occurs in 1990, while Ruth Cole, a famous novelist, is on tour. The third and final segment of the book happens in 1995, where the turmoil in her life is resolved and “everything” falls into place. In this novel John Irving incorporates many of his own experiences into the story line. John Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942. He later attend Exeter academy and has written many successful novels. Mr. Irving is a well-recognized author because of his meticulous writing style and his in depth portrayal of characters and story line. Critics praise the “old-fashioned” yet modern style of writing that John Irving creates in his novel with his intricate plots and twisting love stories in A Widow for One Year, though many say that the extent of his gruesome depictions of sex scenes take away from the quality of the book.

The critics from the Kirkus Reiew, the Los Angeles Times, Salon Magazine, and the Washington post commend Irving’s brilliant descriptions of love in the novel. Ruth Coughlin from the “San Francisco Chronicle” says “A Widow for One Year, his (Irving) most intricate and fully imagined novel is a compelling composite of love and loss”(Coughlin 1). William Pritchard of the “The New York Times Book Review” states that, “A Widow for One Year is a grand celebration of the forces of love and hope over grief and despairit is a multilayered love story of astonishing emotional force”(Pritchard 2). Michiko Kakutani of the “Los Angeles Times” describes the novel, ” Irving’s own storytelling has never been better. In fact, his authoritative narrative steamrolls over the contrivances, impossibilities and antic excesses of his story to create an engaging and often affecting fable, a fairy tale of love that manages to be old-fashioned and modern all at once”(Kakutani 2). Critics extol Irving’s use of suspense and his complex love affairs. “All the elements of the author’s oeuvre are present in this new novel: children killed in a tragic accident that their parents view as their own fault; prep school send-ups; a tale of obsession which one may confuse with love-all illuminated by the thin light of loss”(Gray 1). Lindsy Van Gelder writes, “Irving should be required to do nothing more to secure his place as one of America’s premier fiction writers. His latest novel, masterfully conceived and constructed, is a joy to read. As one who discerns and tells about life in fictional format, Irving is bested by few”(Gelder 1).Many critics agree that John Irving created a masterpiece in his new novel, with an intriguing plot and diverse characters. John Irving seems to have written a novel that few could match. “It is very much a return to [Irving’s] eccentrically winsome formIt is clearly Irving’s special gift for farcical incident, his piercing sense of the wonderful and terrible vulnerability of children and those of tender heartsand it is good to have the author back in recognizable shape”(Vaughn 1).

Although many may think this novel to be a contemporary masterpiece, people agree that the book may have been too explicit and too gratuitous as well as too far-fetched. There are many scenes in this book that very few people may be able to relate to; these scenes detract from the overall strength of the novel. Even those critics that praise the book also say it has its flaws that take away from its “greatness”. “Irving has the effrontery to get away with practically any scene that comes into his head-Ruth winds up an eye witness to a hooker’s murder in Amsterdam, a Dutch detective starts tracking her down, and multiple plot strands all converge in a finale that neatly echoes the opening scene”(Pritchard 2). Michiko Kakutani quotes, “Widow is marred by paint-by-number psychologizing and heavy-handed use of coincidence”(Kakutani 1). A common criticism is that the book uses sexual aberration and sexual violence to a discomforting degree. “Eventually I yearned for the grip to slacken; by the final section, as every loose end is meticulously folded away, I was increasingly irritatedI also found that the descriptiveness of Eddie’s obsession with older women to be quite bothersome”(Kurth 1). Eddie, the main male character of the book, has an obsession for wanting to “be” with older women. He even writes what many would call pornographic books about his imagined experiences with older women. Other critics write that, ” The story moves sluggishly, and overindulges both Irving’s love of intricate Victorian plots and his literary likes and dislikes”(Kirkus 1). Many found the book to be intriguing and very well thought out but were skeptical about the “necessity” of the explicit details.

“When Ruth Cole entered her parent’ bedroom, she saw the nakedyoung man who had mounted her mother from behind; he was holding her mother’s breasts in his hands and humping her on all fours, like a dog, but it was neither the violence not the repugnance of the sexual act that caused Ruth to screamIt was the young man himself who made Ruth scream, because she was certain he was one of her dead brothers”(4).

This is the opening scene of the novel. Although this is unique it may easily put readers off, especially those of younger ages. The scene described is a relationship between Eddie, sixteen years old, and Marion, Ruth’s mom who was in her late thirties. This relationship becomes one of many twisted love stories of the book, and it starts Eddie’s obsession with older women. Eddie became an unsuccessful and unrecognized author. He wrote several books about his encounters with Marion and other older women, such as Sixty Times and Elizabeth J. Benton (though he never had sex with anyone but Marion). At the end of the book Marion returns to Eddie at the age of seventy-six, his reunion with her is the final scene in the book, and represents Eddie’s fulfillment.

“Marion, in an ivory-white slip, and with her hair unpinned-it was shoulder-length, and of a whiter shade of gray than Eddie’s-surprised him in the kitchen by putting her arms around his waist and hugging himMarion allowed her hand to stray to Eddie’s erectionAnd Eddie lay, as he’d once lain with her. With his head against Marion’s breasts; her hand ran through his hair as she clasped him to her”(532).

Throughout the novel there were many descriptions of sexual behavior that can be seen as repulsive, or nearly so, and at times these made the book a difficult read.

John Irving is an eloquent author who writes stories that are beyond realism, often so intense as to be difficult to read. Irving creates a satisfying tale with many different plots and twists which make the novel at times compelling. Sex can be romantic and artistic but when making loves turns