I love Julia Glass’s novels, and this one is as good as any. Set in a prosperous suburb of Boston, it tells about a widower who offers a barn on his property as a child care center. What happens after that is truly remarkable.
The Widower’s Tale
Julia Glass’ most recent novel, The Widower’s Tale (416 pages, Pantheon, $25.95)tells the story of Percy Darling, a 70-year-old retiree who still misses his wife who died tragically many years before. He lives alone, but he remains close to his two daughters, Clover and Trudy, and he is especially close to his grandson, Robert, who is Trudy’s only child. The daughters are very different. The older one, Clover, has a failed marriage and a number of failed attempts at a profession, but she has landed, happily it seems, in this day care center, and she has found friends and a wonderful support group there. Trudy is an accomplished medical doctor, an oncologist who specializes in breast cancer for women. This is an amazingly fraught public position to hold, but she holds it well; and she is a hero to the women with whom she works.
Sometime before the novel begins, Clover has come to Percy and asked him if the child care center, Elves and Fairies, which had to move from another location, could take over the barn on his property. After some hesitation, Percy has said yes, and a famous architect has come in to transform the aging structure into something quite wonderful. Even Percy is impressed.
In the course of his day to day life, Percy meets a middle-aged artist, Sarah, who also has a young son at the day care center. She is some twenty years younger than he, but she clearly finds him attractive, and he is delighted to spend time with her. Imagine his chagrin, then, when he notices a lump in her breast and tries to persuade her to seek medical attention. At first she refuses outright—insists that it is a fibrous growth—but when she finally gives in and goes for a mammogram, it turns out that she has quite advanced cancer, and must immediately begin a course of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment will also involve a mastectomy. In the course of her treatment, she withdraws from Percy—in an odd but understandable way she blames him for her cancer—and it takes them almost the whole novel to find one another again.
While they are estranged, Percy finds the company of his nephew consoling. His nephew comes around the day care center to help Ira, one of the teachers, build a tree house for the kids. Ira and Robert become close, and they bond over the construction. Percy thinks of Ira as a kind of pixy, and he is indeed a sweet, young gay man who has found his métier in teaching these young kids. Ira has a boyfriend too. Anthony is a lawyer, and although he supports Ira in his career, he is not sure he wants to socialize with any of his day care friends.
Robert is a student a Harvard, and his roommate, Arturo, has begun to get him involved in some radical activities around issues of global warming and saving the environment. As Robert gets more deeply involved, these start to seem like eco-terrorist activities.
To Robert’s horror, many of the pranks—at first they seem little more than pranks—are executed in the rich suburbs, and it is not too long before he finds himself compromised by activities that hurt the very people he loves.
Glass is wonderful at creating all these different worlds, and each main character is richly rendered and lovingly developed. The novel becomes almost like a thriller at the end; but it is a Julia Glass thriller and therefore it is deeply humane and extraordinarily moving.
The Widower's Tale available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.