A Widow for One Year: A Novel

by John Irving

Hardcover, 1998

Call number





Random House (1998), Edition: 1st trade ed, 537 pages


A girl discovers her mother in bed with a teenage boy and later the mother abandons her. Meanwhile, her father is seducing young girls. So begins the story of Ruth Cole, a famous writer struggling to overcome childhood traumas and find love.

User reviews

LibraryThing member cameling
Stories within a story ... this is really what this book amounts to. It's like getting a little surprise treat every once in a while along the way.

There's a house on Long Island where every room is filled with framed photographs of 2 boys long dead. A little girl of 4 grows up in the house surrounded by photos of her dead brothers whom she knows only through stories told around each photograph. Ted, the father, is a writer of 3 not very successful novels and successful children's books. He also has a penchant for drinking, playing squash and seducing women, preferably unhappily married younger women. Marion, the mother, is vague and distant after the loss of her sons. Ruth is their 4 year old daughter, conceived as an intended replacement for the sons they had lost. Marion and Ted decide to separate amicably, live in 2 houses and take alternate days and nights with Ruth at the main house.

Eddie O'Hare, a 16 year old, enters into this family, ostensibly as an intern to Ted, who lose his license as a result of multiple DUI charges and needs someone to drive him. Eddie thinks he's there to learn how to be a writer. Eddie ends up having a love affair with Marion.

And that's the start where our 4 main characters are introduced. From that point on, their lives start to unravel before us, Marion leaves Ted and Ruth and disappears for most of the rest of the book. We leave Ruth at 4 on the day her mother disappears and pick her up again when she's now a successful writer in her 20s.

Sounds simple but it's not. There's almost every emotion brought forth in this book. Anger, sadness, elation and humor. There are a few really funny moments in this story, Mrs Vaughn and the gardener over the drawings, Ted and the squid ink ice cubes, Eddie and 'sixty times' and even Ruth in Amsterdam's red light district.

While the story unfolds around the lives of our 4 main characters, all of whom are or become writers themselves, there are little side stories that seamlessly emerge about some of the people they come in contact with. The seamlessness with which these side stories slide into the main characters lives done with great skill. And if you don't think that's hard enough to do, we're also treated to the actual children's stories that Ted wrote, chapters of the novels written by Ruth, bits of Eddie's novels and later parts of Marion's books.

This book reminded me of a kaleidoscope, you're dazzled by the patterns and colors when you look into the eye-piece, but a slight movement of the wrist, and a new and different brightly lit picture appears before you. More twists bring more new dazzling patterns and you can't get enough of them. This is what this book was like for me. Every few pages introduced me to new pictures and new stories. I couldn't get enough of them.

I especially wish Ted Cole's children's illustrated books were real so I could buy and keep them for myself....they sound a bit like Lemony Snicket stories.
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LibraryThing member LhLibrarian
I feel that this was more wordy than it needed to be - a compelling story but I could have cut back or cut out some of the descriptions that seem to go one forever.
LibraryThing member thatotter
Hmm...there were a lot of praiseworthy elements, but in the end the story just didn't really grab me. There were too many things that I found mildly implausible (especially about grown-up Ruth's fans and life). The writing was good, but not amazing, though I did really like the chapter titles. The tone shifts from genuinely funny to suspenseful to Lifetime Movie-sappy in different sections. There was a bit too much focus on the intricacies of Long Island and squash for me, as I'm not particularly interested in either.… (more)
LibraryThing member Renzomalo
Didn't care for it and wouldn't recommend it. It was a disciplined slog to finally reach the last sentence which had the singular benefit of indicating that my long, literary trek was over. Reading this, it occurred to me that Mr. Irving may be suffering from the curse of popularity which incapacitates editors to utter things like: "John? What the hell is this?" For whatever reasons, the book seemed self-aggrandizing to a fault, while the irrational and prolific use of italics and exclamation points eludes explanation altogether. Not my cup of tea I guess.

Undaunted, however, I am now in possession of Mr. Irving's latest offering "Avenue of Mysteries." We'll see.
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
One of his best. Great characters driving the plot. Even though the plot might have been unbelievable in places, the characters made you believe. Hard to explain, but the book just made me feel good. Ruth was a wonderful, strong, likable, complex character that you had to root for!
LibraryThing member AlisonY
This was my first John Irving novel, and whilst I strongly suspect he's another Marmite kind of author in the realm of Jonathan Franzen (at least for this book), personally I've found a new favourite author.

It's no doubt terribly maudlin of me, but I just can't resist a dysfunctional family saga. A Widow for One Year begins with a couple in The Hamptons whose teenage boys had been killed in an accident five years earlier, and as the novel unfolds and time moves on it examines the ripple effect of that tragedy on the couple, their young daughter and some other key players who come into contact with the family.

Despite the backdrop of the family tragedy, this is not a depressive book. There is a lot of black comedy woven throughout the book, with strong characters and an intricate plot. Perhaps at times it wandered a little bit, so for that I'm dropping half a star, but in all a read I enjoyed very much.

4.5 stars - a rollicking good read.
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LibraryThing member Eily
Only the second of John Irving’s books I have read, the first being the wondrous The Adventures of Garp, A Widow for One Year is impressive in terms of ambition, detail and a witty ingenuity, especially towards the beginning and the later sections of the book. Less impressive, for me, however, is the tedious style of writing, where the narrator prefigures what is going to happen in his own asides. This makes the book far too knowing and is its chief detraction. Further problems are related to the wordiness and the sometimes pointless rehashing of previous events. The tone is verbiose and over-informative – there is throughout a surfeit of telling rather than showing.
The story is fairly engaging, though there is a sense of this overheated little group of people crowded together, in some cases, incestuously. Furthermore, far too many of them are writers. The father, the mother, the mother’s lover, the daughter – even the daughter’s best-friend is a journalist and her first husband is a publisher – and did all of the writers have to be successful (though some are more successful than others, they all manage to make a living from the art)? It is all very clumsily convenient and a closed little world. The clichéd ending is dreadful (nearly everyone lives happily ever after) and puts the jester’s cap on this interminable socio-sexual saga.
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LibraryThing member JimBrewington
Well written but seemingly without a plot. Most of the characters are interesting, but that's about it.
LibraryThing member unlikelyaristotle
A great intertwining of crazy, dysfunctional people trying hard (I think) to be normal and survive in the world. Of course I mean this in the nicest way, because I truly believe everyone is like this at their core, at least in these days, I can't speak for the billions of people who have lived and died in the past!

The story centers around the life of Ruth, beginning very abruptly with a 4-year old Ruth 'overhearing the sound of love-making coming from her parents room', this being I believe one of the earliest memories of Ruth's childhood. The story moves on seamlessly to other seminal times in Ruth's life, all over the world. To me, it's sort of like a manual on 'How to write a good story' or at least 'How to create an interesting plot'.… (more)
LibraryThing member aliciamalia
Irving is usually a sure thing--he writes well, and knows how to tell a story. That said, the subject of this book gets tedious. Try The Cider House Rules instead (which is better than the movie made of it).
LibraryThing member Glorybe1
John Irving does it again! He really has to be one of my favourite authors. A Widow for One year is again an excellent story of a dysfunctional family, but he takes each character and makes you feel that you know them so well. You just have to fall in love with each and every one of them!
This book is primarily about Ruth Cole and Eddie O'Hare,and is in three parts, it starts in the summer of 1958 when Ruth is 4 and Eddie is 16, he comes to work for Ruth's father Ted as a writers assistant and falls in love with Ruths mother Marion, a love he will have for the rest of his life.
Ruths mother walks out on her family that summer and Ruth does not see her again for 37 years! she is brought up by her philandering father, who does love her dearly and does the best he can.
The next time we see Ruth she is a young unmarried woman who writes for a living. Her choice of men has been terrible so far and her books all reflect the fact. She has been damaged by her life so far, and you get the feeling that she is waiting for something.
The final part of the book we meet Ruth as a woman recently widowed with a child. She has a successful career as a writer and travels around the world. She has an idea for an extraordinary book and this ultimately brings her the love and security she so richly deserves.
I loved it and would recommend it along with every other thing that John Irving has written. You cannot help but get caught up in his characters
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LibraryThing member estellen
Good book, although the subplot towards the end surrounding the Red Light District was needless and took away from the strength of the book. Would have been much better if it just focused on the family.
LibraryThing member hockeycrew
Among my favorite works by John Irving, A Widow for a Year is part Love story, mystery and real life drama. It follows the life of several authors in their twisted lives. It deals with the grief of loosing children, and husbands. Once again, John Irving brings us to Amsterdam.
LibraryThing member Katie_H
I am a huge John Irving fan already, and this gem did not disappoint. The story spans 40 years, beginning with 16-year-old Eddie O'Hare's summer job in the Hamptons as an assistant to Ted Cole, an adulterous, womanizing, children's book author. Ted's wife, Marion, quickly initiates an affair with Eddie, who eerily resembles one of her dead sons, both of whom died a few years prior in a tragic car accident. That fateful summer was also when Ruth, Ted and Eddie's 4 year old daughter, first entered Eddie's life. The narrative continues with Ruth into adulthood after she has become a famous author, following her across continents, and in and out of fascinating relationships. The writing is typical for this author; it is chock full of details with extremely rich and eccentric characters. I absolutely love how every word and sentence means something important, adding to the story instead of merely taking up space on the page. It was especially interesting to see Irving write about his own profession; the book feels slightly autobiographical in that respect. Of all the Irving novels that I have read so far, I was most able to relate to this one, because of the increased presence of female characters. Dysfunction is the heart of this novel, and it was thoroughly fantastic.… (more)
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
I realised as I opened this book that parts of it are set in Amsterdam, which was funny as I was heading for Amsterdam when I opened this. Kinda pretentious and wordy it could have been a better story if the author wasn't too busy trying to psychoanalyse the characters.
LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
This novel is three stories in one beginning with a young man's affair with an older woman who has lost two sons. This story and its underlying themes remain oddly compelling, even though it's been years since I finished reading the book. Irving is a master of prose, albeit a twisted one at times.
LibraryThing member bnbooklady
This is John Irving at his very best. A funny, touching, mesmerizing book with all of Irving's hallmark tricks--multiple storytlines and stories-within-stories weave together for a brilliant, Dickensian ending. Irving's well-known themes are also present here as a young man explores and wrestles with his budding sexuality (and has a pretty hot affair with an older woman's clothing...) and deals with the identity crisis resulting from a weak, if not non-existent, relationship with his father. Also present are Irving's fascination with Austrian life and culture, a trip to Amsterdam that involves a murder and spying on a prostitute, and a heartbreaking story of one family's life-altering tragedy. This will be a fast favorite for existing Irving fans and a great introduction to his writing for newcomers.… (more)
LibraryThing member scarey
My favourite Irving book. Great characters and more mystery than some of his other books. His books are so vast I think they are best enjoyed when you can immerse yourself in them fully. I read this one on holiday.
LibraryThing member rcooper3589
i like the fact this follows the main charcter through the majority of his life. although it's a little on the long side- and seems to be a bunch of stories in one!- it's really good!!
LibraryThing member davidabrams
Picture a tree. A tall, old tree that stands head and shoulders (or leaf and limb) above the rest of the forest. Now picture "A Widow for One Year," John Irving's novel that stands tall and proud in the literary thicket. Just as that majestic oak sends out a tangle of roots at its base, so does the novel's plot.
As anyone who has read any of Irving's other masterpieces ("A Prayer for Owen Meany," "The Cider House Rules" and the one that established his reputation--"The World According to Garp") can attest, the author fills his pages with intricate plot and unforgettable characters. And what a set of characters in "Widow"! A children's book writer, a hooker with a home life, a Dutch detective smitten with love for a writer he's never met, a sweet-natured gardener and a pair of tragic brothers. And this is just a fingernail fragment of the entire cast. Irving is a genius at creating characters that may not be realistic, but yet you swear you can hear them breathing on every page.
It's impossible to describe the "tangled root" plot of "Widow." Let's just leave it at these teasers: a severed leg, a mean game of squash and unrequited love.
Take a deep breath, clear some space on your calendar, and step into Irving's lovely forest.
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LibraryThing member jettelandberg
A really sad and quiet story I can't quite remember, just that it filled med with a pleasant and sad feeling
LibraryThing member bekahjohnston
My favorite of John Irving's novels. Hilarious, yet tragic.
LibraryThing member bagambo
Great book by Irving. I think the movie Door in the Floor is based on part of the book. Story is about the character named Ruth and her life as a child, writer, mother and lover. Unhappy childhood to loved adulthood. Interesting storytelling.
LibraryThing member andafiro
(Adding this to my library now though I read it some time ago--this title just now showed up as a recommendation and I want to confirm that yes, it's a good recommendation. ;-)
LibraryThing member xmaystarx
I really enjoyed this book, very memorable with haunting images. The hooks on the walls...




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