Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Widow For One Year

John Irving is a guilty pleasure of mine. I find his writing a bit same-y and trashy but it has moments of real beauty and clarity. What he does, he does well. He crafts his writing carefully and explores some themes, such as the sudden loss of loved ones, with insight. When he exercises restraint and avoids gimmicks he can be very good.

Before I read A Widow for One Year, I saw the film based on the novel. The film is called The Door in the Floor and stars Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges. I really enjoyed the film and was curious when I discovered it was based on only the first third of Irving's novel. Having read the novel, I now understand why the film-makers did this.

The first third of A Widow for One Year is near perfect. It tells the story of a teenage boy, Eddie, who becomes a writer's assistant to Ted Cole, a famous children's author, during a summer on Long Island in 1958. The naive boy Eddie does not realise that he is walking into a volatile situation in which the marriage between Ted and his wife Marion is breaking down. The cause of this breakdown is the uncontrollable grief that has overwhelmed Marion since the accidental death of her and Ted's two teenage boys several years earlier. The birth of another child, Ruth, has failed to help Marion return to her thoughts to the living and Ted has come to believe that she needs some kind of substitute for her boys in the form of Eddie. Eddie finds himself intoxicated by Marion and the intensity of her desire. Before long they begin a sexual relationship, one which will shape the rest of Eddie's life.

This part of the story balances tragedy and comedy beautifully so that it is incredibly moving when we hear about the death of the boys but this sadness is countered by some great slapstick comedy moments involving Ted and his many mistresses. John Irving's skill lies in this tragi-comedy.

He also writes in a very cinematic way in this section of the novel. Scenes are so vivid that it is easy to see why the makers of The Door in the Floor stuck so closely to the novel.

The book comes to a natural close at the end of this first section. If Irving had left it there, I think this would be one of his better works. Unfortunately he pushes on (and on) with the story of Ruth's adult life, a life that becomes increasingly bizarre and unrealistic. There are Dutch prostitutes and murderers, rapes and affairs, suicides and marriages, and somewhere along the way I lost any belief in the characters or the plot. The particularly ridiculous ending was the final straw. Characters such as Eddie, who had been endearing as a young man, become unlikeable and unrealistic as adults.

If only Irving had had the self-discipline to stop at the story's natural end-point. He wouldn't have had one of his famously brick-like novels, but he might have made a name for himself as a more thoughtful and restrained writer.

5 comments:

Wendy said...

I am a lover of John Irving novels...but I have to agree with you about his tendency to go on for too long (his last novel: Until I Find You would have improved with some heavy editing in my opinion). I loved the early part of A Widow For One Year (and surprisingly I loved the movie too - usually movies made from novels tend to disappoint me!). I felt the same level of ho-hum for the second part of this book that you did. But, that said - I will still read Irving's books whenever he writes them!

missv said...

Hi! Just found your blog via Sarsparilla. I watched the The Door in the Floor on DVD recently and was considering checking out the novel. Now I'm not so sure, perhaps I should just read the first section??

jess said...

Thanks for your comments, Wendy and Missv. Missv, I think the film is such a faithful version of the first part of the novel that I'd probably recommend skipping the book itself. I do find it strange that I'm saying that about a book though!

steven said...

I think the scenes in Amsterdam were too tedious. Irving could have trimmed that section back and still maintained the flow. However, I think the last sentence of the book is one of the most satisfying I have read in many years.

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