A Widow for One Year Summary
by John Irving

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A Widow for One Year Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Widow for One Year covers thirty-seven years in the life of Ruth Cole, a renowned novelist. Divided into three parts, the novel focuses first on the parents of four-year-old Ruth. Because of the deaths of their teenaged sons, Marion and Ted are a dysfunctional couple living apart but sharing custody of their young daughter.

Ted, a seducer of young mothers who pose for him, hires Eddie, a sixteen-year-old aspiring writer, as a chauffeur. An affair between Marion and Eddie ensues and continues throughout the summer. Finally, Marion leaves and is not heard from for thirty-seven years. Before departing, Marion confesses to Eddie, “I won’t be a bad mother to Ruth. . . . I would rather be no mother than a bad one.”

Ruth’s story continues thirty years later. She is a highly successful novelist, and her personal life revolves around her best friend, Hannah, a journalist; her childhood acquaintance Eddie; her father; and a few unsatisfying affairs. While researching an idea for a new novel, Ruth witnesses the brutal murder of a prostitute in Amsterdam. Anonymously, she sends an eyewitness account of the event to Harry, a Dutch policeman.

Ted commits suicide in his squash court, which has “a door in the floor.” (In 2004, a film by this name depicted the triangle of Marion, Ted, and Eddie.)

After the death of her first husband, Ruth returns to her book tours and meets, falls in love with, and marries Harry. She appears to have finally found love. The novel concludes with Marion’s return and reunion with Eddie. It is interesting that her reunion with Ruth is left to the reader’s imagination.

This novel centers around relationships, most of them love/hate. Ruth, especially, is bound up in ambiguities. Her mother deserts her, but Ruth cannot let her go. Her father raises her, and she loves him but cannot resist hurting him. Her best friend, Hannah, represents many things that Ruth despises. Eddie is at times both her confidant and an object of her ridicule. She loves her first husband, but he has habits and attitudes that repulse her. Only her second husband seems to fulfill all of her expectations.

An interesting device that Irving uses is to make Ted, Marion, Eddie, and Ruth writers. In doing so, he incorporates their work into his own. Ted’s children’s stories and illustrations are dark and scary, Marion’s books center on two young men, Eddie writes of May-December relationships with older women, and Ruth refuses to write autobiographically until her last novel. Inclusion of these various approaches allows Irving to comment at length on writing and writers.

Amsterdam replaces Vienna, a favorite Irving foreign location. Over four years, he made numerous visits to the Red Light district, interviewing a policeman and a former prostitute. As a result, the prostitutes, their tiny rooms, their customers, and the street scenes are visible, tactile, and auditory.

Upon this novel’s publication in 1998, most critics hailed it as the author’s best since The World According to Garp. Its complex plot and its heroine provide a compelling look at tragedy and triumph.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Widow for One Year focuses on writers as it tells a sprawling story that covers nearly forty years. The novel introduces numerous characters, each one well drawn and memorable, and effectively relates a variety of events, often in a comic manner. Yet its main narrative thrust lies in the way writers develop, the private and public lives they lead, the methods they employ, the reasons they write, the material they use, and the success they gain. Told in the omnisicient third person, the novel opens in 1958 when sixteen-year-old Eddie O’Hare enters the dysfunctional Cole household on Long Island as an assistant to Ted Cole, a much-admired writer and illustrator of children’s books. His distraught wife Marion, a strikingly beautiful woman, continues to grieve over the deaths in an automobile accident of their two teenaged sons. The parents, who were in the back seat of the...

(The entire section is 1,168 words.)