Sweetly compassionate yarns weave together four works in progress

Julia Glass’s latest novel overlaps the lives of 70-year-old Percy Darling and three other men. Julia Glass’s latest novel overlaps the lives of 70-year-old Percy Darling and three other men. (Dennis Cowley)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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Those who have read “Three Junes,” Julia Glass’s lovely first novel, are aware of her special touch when it comes to interrelatedness. In that 2002 National Book Award-winning debut, Glass gracefully overlapped the corners of the lives of parents, children, friends, lovers, and animals. The characters touched across time and great distance, across gender and age lines, and across life and death. With a sure hand and heart, Glass engineered a rambling, diverse, and emotionally honest universe of cause and effect.

In her winning third novel, “The Widower’s Tale,” Glass gives us another loosely linked community that falls together with sweet inevitability. (It reminds me, in its multigenerational character quilting, of the TV series “Modern Family.”) Set in the fictional Massachusetts town of Matlock, the story is a bit cheerier than “Three Junes,” but just as eloquently and compassionately written. It’s a nice return to form for Glass, after an underwhelming second novel, “The Whole World Over,” which revolved around a less than compelling set of characters. “The Widower’s Tale” is both a knowing study of the complications presented by everyday life and a paean to the progress they can engender.

That’s right, the novel is about progress and change, even while the central character is a 70-year-old man, Percy Darling. That’s the cheery part of Glass’s world in “The Widower’s Tale” — it’s never too late to find new ways to live, to understand yourself. It’s never too late to jettison baggage. Glass breaks the book into four male points of view in alternating chapters — Percy; Robert, Percy’s Harvard-student grandson; Ira, a gay teacher at a neighboring preschool; and Celestino, a local gardener and illegal immigrant. But Percy’s narration is the only one presented in the first person, and his story — his growth and adaptation — anchors all the other stories Glass tells.

He’s a classic curmudgeon, this Percy, which is abundantly clear in the voice that Glass has fashioned for him. He’s constantly griping about the direction of the world — toward architectural blasphemy in his old town, toward young people’s obsession with their computers, toward the weakened rules of English grammar. A retired Harvard librarian, he uses dated phrases such as “give a hoot” and formal words such as “libations.” In a movie version, he would be played by the late Henry Fonda in his later years. Glass is clearly fond of Percy and his tough standards, but she also pokes fun at him and the way he digs in his heels. Like his house, one of Matlock’s oldest, Percy hasn’t changed much in decades — indeed, since his wife accidentally drowned in a nearby pond decades earlier.

Once Percy gives over his barn to the Elves & Fairies preschool, though, his solitary and static life is rocked. He begins having more interaction with one of his two daughters, Clover, who is a teacher at the school. And he begins having a romantic relationship with the lively mother of an Elves & Fairies student. Meanwhile, Percy’s favorite but weak-willed grandson Robert — son of his oncologist daughter Trudy — is on hand more regularly, secretly participating in radical environmentalist activities that threaten to further rupture Percy’s safe little empire.

Like Percy, Ira also needs to take a step forward, out of past trauma into a sense of resolution and then evolution. Like all the prominent men in “The Widower’s Tale,” he holds himself apart from others, apart from community and responsibility. Ira teaches with Clover, and he gradually becomes entwined with her, with Percy, and with Percy’s new girlfriend. But just as he isn’t willing to marry his partner, a lawyer named Anthony, he also isn’t willing to let himself feel a part of the Elves & Fairies network of parents and teachers. He is in post-traumatic stasis, stuck in old, bitter memories that I will not spoil here.

At first, the story of Celestino seems oddly beside the point in “The Widower’s Tale.” His connection to the others is the most peripheral of all, as he maintains gardens in Matlock and helps Robert and Ira put together a treehouse for Elves & Fairies. He is worlds away from Percy, Robert, and Ira. But his story, from his early years growing up in Guatemala to his years in Cambridge as the protégé of a Harvard professor, provides a nice counterpart to the others. He grieves the ambitions he cultivated in Cambridge, before he was banished for sleeping with his mentor’s daughter. He, too, is a man who doesn’t quite embrace his current life because he feels as though he doesn’t belong. But in the case of Celestino, his struggle to belong in the United States — to join the community — is literal as well as emotional, in light of his illegal status.

The end of “The Widower’s Tale’’ arrives somewhat abruptly, compared to Glass’s more leisurely pace elsewhere. The pieces she has described with such loving detail all connect a little peremptorily, with the unintended effect of diminishing the novel’s overall value. Still, Glass delivers more than enough pleasure before that point to make the journey worthwhile. With writing as rich as this, the getting there is an end in itself.

Matthew Gilbert, a member of the Globe staff, can be reached at

By Julia Glass
Pantheon, 402 pp., $26.95