John Irving published A Widow for One Year in 1998 [Random House] so my apologies for not getting round to it sooner. It was certainly worth the wait. The novel is about sex, love and writers but not necessarily in that order. There is a fairly steady flow of sex; some undying and even some eventually requited love; and almost everyone is either a book writer or a book editor and; we must never forget them; an avid book reader. The story spans a period of nearly forty years so there is plenty time for quite a variety of different approaches to sex; sufficient time for characters to fall in love more than once or, in one case, remain in love from start to finish; and ample time for even the slowest writers to turn out several books.
You know my strict no-plot-spoiler rule so the limited information I can give you begins in 1958 with sixteen-year-old Eddie who wants to become a writer getting a summer job on Long Island as something called rather vaguely a writer’s assistant. The writer in question is Ted Cole, famous for his illustrated children’s stories with intriguing titles such as The Mouse Crawling between the Walls, The Door in the Floor and A Sound like Someone trying not to make a Sound. The titles have sprung from conversations between Ted and his then four-year-old daughter Ruth. Ruth loves stories and everything in the house seems to have a story attached, stories which the child insists on being told over and over again, word for word. But there is powerful sadness associated with all the photographs that adorn the walls in every room. Even sadder, Ted and Marion are in the middle of arranging a divorce.
One trait of this book is the running joke where a neat turn of phrase is repeated as a little in-joke with the reader. Though it may seem a sad, and is, at some points, even a violent story, Irving’s humour runs from beginning to end.
The fact that at least four writers emerge as the story unfolds enables a fifth writer, Irving, to have his characters develop their views on what constitutes good fiction and whether or not novels should be, or maybe cannot help being, implicitly or even subliminally autobiographical. As one of the novelists puts it in a talk:
Here she was espousing the purity of imagination as to memory, extolling the superiority of invented detail as opposed to the merely autobiographical. Here she was, singing the virtues of creating wholly imagined characters as opposed to populating a novel with personal friends and family members – ‘ex-lovers, and those other limited, disappointing people from our actual lives’ – and yet the lecture had worked well again. Audiences loved it. [The] lecture had become her credo. She asserted that the best fictional detail was the detail that should have defined the character or the episode or the atmosphere. Fictional truth was what should have happened in a story – not necessarily what did happen or what had happened. [Her] credo amounted to a war against the roman à clef, a put-down of the autobiographical novel, which now made her feel ashamed because she knew she was getting ready to write her most autobiographical novel to date.
That seems to be the core of the dilemma in the book since all the fictional writers Irving has invented (I suppose he has invented them but there’s a question!) seem to be locked into a pattern of writing highly autobiographical novels. How he weaves this into and out of his narrative, in between all the sex and the love, adds even more spice to his complex and cunningly plotted novel. It is certainly a success which is just as well since one of the characters, the avid reader, remarks at one point that ‘[t]here is no intolerance in America that compares to the peculiarly American intolerance for lack of success’. Fortunately, for me, Irving has never been other than successful.