A Widow for One Year
In The World According to Garp (1978), John Irving’s fourth novel and the one that would establish his reputation as a major novelist, the life and career of the title character, T. S. Garp, are nearly overshadowed by the life and career of Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, an “accidental feminist” whose writings are at least as well known as those of her son. Similarly, in Irving’s ninth novel, A Widow for One Year, the life and career of the title character, Ruth Cole, often recede into the background, upstaged by the works and deeds of her parents and others. As in The World According to Garp, Irving’s narrative includes extended passages, even complete stories, attributed to one or another of the principal characters.
Told in three main parts subdivided into chapters, the tale of Ruth Cole’s life begins in 1958, when Ruth is four years old, having been conceived as a “replacement” for two teenage brothers recently killed in an automobile accident. Ruth’s father, Ted, is an internationally famous writer and illustrator of children’s books; her mother, Marion, at thirty-nine some six years younger than her husband, once harbored literary aspirations of her own but has thus far resigned herself to the life of housewife and mother. By the summer of 1958, however, things have begun to unravel; the Coles, now living at the eastern end of Long Island, New York, have rented a second, smaller house several miles distant from the one they own in order to practice living apart, each parent taking turns in the main house with little Ruth. It is at this point that Eddie O’Hare enters the scene, having been hired by Ted as “writer’s assistant” and designated driver: Ted, it seems, has had his license revoked for driving while intoxicated. Before long, however, it becomes clear that Ted’s motives are somewhat more sinister; Ted, whose addiction to liquor is rivaled only by his addiction to unhappily married younger women, has in fact hired the sixteen-year-old Eddie to serve as Marion’s lover, and also as Ted’s go-between in certain ongoing extramarital affairs. Eddie, whose recently acquired driver’s license ostensibly qualifies him for the job (although, in fact, he would have had to be eighteen to drive legally in the state of New York), is further qualified by his student status at Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire) and his strong physical resemblance to Thomas, the elder of Ted and Marion’s deceased sons. Throughout the novel, the theme of incest, or incest-by-proxy, is never far from the characters’ minds.
For all of her four years, little Ruth Cole has been surrounded by framed and matted photographs of her dead brothers, brought “to life” by her parents’ anecdotal recollections as to when and where each picture was taken. Indeed, the remembered lives of Thomas and Timothy Cole make up the major portion of Ruth’s preschool education: To the surprise of young Eddie, the child is quite proud of her “authority” on the subject of her brothers, whose memory seems to be the only remaining connection between her rapidly estranging parents. Eddie’s father, Joe O’Hare, an English teacher better known as “Minty” because of his fondness for breath mints, has taken care to foster Ted Cole’s Exeter connection, both as alumnus and as parent, even soliciting from the Coles an endowed lectureship in memory of their sons, both of whom were on vacation from Exeter when they died. The elder O’Hare, aware of young Eddie’s aspirations to be a writer, thus has no trouble “placing” his son as Ted’s assistant for the summer, little suspecting what the job will involve.
Even before Eddie’s intrusion into her life, Marion Cole has planned a permanent extension of her “trial” separation from Ted; Eddie’s presence serves mainly as a catalyst, and Eddie himself as a conduit for information that the Coles can no longer share with each other. If Ted, anticipating divorce, has hoped to entrap Marion into an affair in order to obtain custody of Ruth, Marion plans simply to vanish, having no apparent interest in her daughter’s future. Indeed, the trauma of her sons’ deaths seems to have drained Marion of all maternal feeling; in any case, she honestly believes that Ted, despite the womanizing of which she is all too well aware, will be the better custodial parent for Ruth, so long as he refrains from driving when drunk. It falls to Eddie, as reluctant confidant to both Coles, first to engineer Marion’s disappearance and then to tell Ted that Marion has left for good, taking only the photographs of their sons, both the negatives and the framed prints. For years thereafter, Ted will keep the vacated picture hooks on the walls of the Long Island house, leaving young Ruth to re-create in her mind the images that used to hang there. The departed Marion, meanwhile, will provide young Eddie O’Hare with material for a number of acceptable but second-rate novels to be published over the years, all featuring the love of a young man for a woman old enough to be his mother.
As Ruth Cole grows toward young womanhood, in time becoming one of the first female students to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, Ted remains secure in his royalties and reputation, rearing Ruth with the help of a Latin American couple formerly employed by one of his mistresses. Ted has in fact stopped writing, having depended for his material first upon the boys and then upon Ruth, whose questions he would answer with stories later committed to paper. Ted’s career, like other dimensions of his life, has been opportunistic in the extreme; having begun in the 1930’s with decreasingly successful novels, Ted made the switch to children’s books as soon as his sons were old enough to inspire them; his marriage and parenthood, meanwhile, appear to have exempted him from service during World War II, when some of his most successful books saw print.
As Ruth matures, she observes that her father, who has never remarried, seeks and finds feminine companionship primarily among restive young mothers who have been reading his books to their children; some have met him through letters, others at workshops and book signings. To keep fit, Ted plays endless games of squash in a court that he has installed above the detached garage of the Long Island house, training young Ruth in the sport in order to have a readily available partner. Ruth, her active...
(The entire section is 2629 words.)