A Widow for One Year by John IrvingA Widow for One Year by John Irving

A Widow for One Year

byJohn Irving

Paperback | March 26, 1999

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“One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking—it was coming from her parents’ bedroom.”
This sentence opens John Irving’s ninth novel, A Widow for One Year, a story of a family marked by tragedy.

Ruth Cole is a complex, often self-contradictory character—a “difficult” woman. By no means is she conventionally “nice,” but she will never be forgotten.

Ruth’s story is told in three parts, each focusing on a critical time in her life. When we first meet her—on Long Island, in the summer of 1958—Ruth is only four.
The second window into Ruth’s life opens on the fall of 1990, when she is an unmarried woman whose personal life is not nearly as successful as her literary career. She distrusts her judgment in men, for good reason.

A Widow for One Year
closes in the autumn of 1995, when Ruth Cole is a forty-one-year-old widow and mother. She’s about to fall in love for the first time.
Richly comic, as well as deeply disturbing, A Widow for One Year is a multilayered love story of astonishing emotional force. Both ribald and erotic, it is also a brilliant novel about the passage of time and the relentlessness of grief.

JOHN IRVING was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968, when he was twenty-six. He competed as a wrestler for twenty years, and coached wrestling until he was forty-seven. Mr. Irving has been nominated for a National Book Award three times--winning once, in 1980, for his n...
Title:A Widow for One YearFormat:PaperbackDimensions:560 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 1.2 inPublished:March 26, 1999Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676971946

ISBN - 13:9780676971941


Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved it No one writes characters with better depth than irving
Date published: 2018-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from John Irving is a genius Loved this book - a must read
Date published: 2016-12-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Loved it The character's were so clear and ever detail of the story was integral to the bigger picture. I couldn't put it down.
Date published: 2016-11-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth Reading What I like about John Irving's novels is that everything you read serves a purpose in the development of the story. Every character, event, and seemingly trivial narrative are part of something much greater, much more complex. His writing is a complicated web of complicated characters but Irving masterfully guides the reader through his prose.
Date published: 2008-05-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Remembering their memories` Irving has a way of forcing his readers into other people's lives, their families, and especially their memories. His plots are complex and his chapters intertwine so much that while it may be tempting to skip through the first quarter of the novel, devoted Irving reader's should know better. As slow as some parts may seem, Irving never tells his readers a detail without reason. Later parts of the book will be resurrected, reworked, and remembered as much by the reader as the characters who have lived through them. Don't rob yourself of that!
Date published: 2001-04-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A disappointment I love John Irving. He is a funny, quirky and captivating writer who often hits me right in the centre of my heart. That's the problem with this book. Its as if he is TRYING to be quirky, that he knows that is his hallmark. Instead, his characters come of seeming flawed or pathetic. The book started out where a tragedy is announced and I was immediately pulled into the novel and ready for some heartwrenching times. Instead, as the book progressed, I had trouble reading it becuase it seemed like he was just trying to hard or something. If you read Prayer for Owen Meany, then Son of the Circus, then you read this book, you are in for a big disappointment.
Date published: 2000-12-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from I'll Never Get Those Hours Back I've read many John Irving books, my favourite being A Son of the Circus. A Widow For One Year grabbed my attention at first, but then quickly paved it over with unbelievable characters, highly improbable situations, and a tedious storyline. Many of the characters are writers, a couple of them bestselling authors, but, wow, do their novels sound tedious. Come on, a fifty-six year old man still doting on a love that ended forty years ago and writing about it ad nauseum? Sounds like the type of guy whose neighbours say, "He seemed like a nice guy. He always kept to himself." And boy, do the characters in this novel have incredible memories. They seem to be fixated on one or two events of their lives. In fact nothing seems to have happened between these events that would colour their memories. The final chapter of domestic bliss--well Homer Simpson said it best: "Where am I, the planet Cornball?" By the way, if you ever meet a fixty-six year old man who is still clinging to the memory of a relationship he had when he was sixteen, put the posters up :"This man may be moving into our neighbourhood."
Date published: 2000-11-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Read Interesting story. Some parts are boring but overall good read.
Date published: 2000-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Discovering New Depths It's very difficult to describe this novel because it exists on so many levels. It can be taken at face value and be a delightful tale with a creative cast of kooky characters. It can be read as a story about storytelling, novel writing and genres - a reflection of itself and of Irving as a writer (this book in fact contains at its heart three writers of novels and one of children's books; all of whose works are described in their unique diversity). It can be appreciated for its multiplicity of layers, stories within stories. Or, it can be a psychological tale of love and hurt and healing. Despite this rich mosaic of lives, events and emotions, this novel remains remarkably light, humorous, easy to read and entertaining. Irving is so meticulous in the construction of his book that we're not left with any pending questions or empty feelings of what might come next. We just get a sense of wonder at all that we have seen in the clearest detail and of what it actually means to the characters, to the writer and to ourselves.
Date published: 2000-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Couldn't put it down!!! Classic Irving -- I loved every second of it (and there were a lot of them!!!)
Date published: 2000-05-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interestingly complex This book, although long, was a great read. Characters are complex but each of them interesting. The first part of the book was more enjoyable than the second one where we don't get to know Ruth well enough. Although this book was good, The World According to Garp is still my favorite one.
Date published: 2000-02-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Widow For One Year Classic Irving Style! This book has satire and wit at its core. The bizarre situations that the characters find themselves in, as well as the the characters themselves are compelling. The stories within the story are creative and totally John Irving's style. I loved the Red & Blue Air Mattress. If you can appreciate irony you will adore this book.
Date published: 1999-10-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Plastic Characters in a Plastic Story Irving is a great storyteller, so you won't get bored with this novel. However, even more so than in other Irving novels, characters and storyline in this novel apear strangely constructed and lifeless. By the end of the book I asked myself: "Who cares?"
Date published: 1999-09-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from There's a first thing to everything Although I found the first part of it very interesting, I thought the whole Amsterdam trip very long (although very interesting !). I wish I could've known more about the mother... It was my first J. Irving novel and I believe he intrigued me enough to make me want to read another one of his novels.
Date published: 1999-08-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Irving's Latest Is a Novel with a Backbone John Irving has created a new selection of characters who we will regret to depart with at the end of his latest novel, A Widow For One Year. Rich in segments of plot, character development and summation, Widow returns readers to the style of A Prayer For Owen Meany which we all loved so much. Highly recommended with elements of romance, regret, comedy and completion. Enjoy.
Date published: 1999-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Widow for One Year This was an intriguing (and long) novel. There isn't really any one main character, but it follows the life of the Cole family as they struggle to put the death of two sons behind them. Although the deaths take place before Ruth Cole is born, it is something that is inextricably tied to her future. I found myself drawn into this novel, and although Ruth is not a particularly likeable character, I cared about what happened to her. The ending was somewhat open ended, leaving you to determine what happened next. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read.
Date published: 1999-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Widow for One Year This was an intriguing (and long) novel. There isn't really any one main character, but it follows the life of the Cole family as they struggle to put the death of two sons behind them. Although the deaths take place before Ruth Cole is born, it is something that is inextricably tied to her future. I found myself drawn into this novel, and although Ruth is not a particularly likeable character, I cared about what happened to her. The ending was somewhat open-ended, leaving you to determine what happened next. I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend it to anyone.
Date published: 1999-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent!!!! I found this book really interesting. I really enjoyed the structure and the characters. The only low point I think was when Ruth dragged on talking about her books. Other than that, I thought it was a great read!!
Date published: 1999-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Couldn't put this book down...excellent reading...
Date published: 1999-07-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Keeps You Reading This book is well paced with a unpredictable plot and interesting characters. It kept me turning pages. But that's it. Read it if you have nothing else good to read. It has it's annoying and irrelevant hangups and the ending sounds more like a summary than a novel.
Date published: 1999-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from VINTAGE IRVING stop whatever you are doing, and obtain this book now -- you'll never read another like it ...
Date published: 1999-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enthralling Tale This is an excellent book with very intriguing characters. Although there is no one great event in the book that stands out, the life stories of the characters are compelling and interesting. BETCHA CAN'T PUT IT DOWN!
Date published: 1999-06-11

Read from the Book

Summer 1958The Inadequate Lamp ShadeOne night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking — it was coming from her parents' bedroom. It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her. Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.It was not as simple a matter as her parents having separate bedrooms; that summer they had separate houses, although Ruth never saw the other house. Her parents spent alternate nights in the family house with Ruth; there was a rental house nearby, where Ruth's mother or father stayed when they weren't staying with Ruth. It was one of those ridiculous arrangements that couples make when they are separating, but before they are divorced — when they still imagine that children and property can be shared with more magnanimity than recrimination.When Ruth woke to the foreign sound, she at first wasn't sure if it was her mother or her father who was throwing up; then, despite the unfamiliarity of the disturbance, Ruth recognized that measure of melancholy and contained hysteria which was often detectable in her mother's voice. Ruth also remembered that it was her mother's turn to stay with her.The master bathroom separated Ruth's room from the master bedroom. When the four-year-old padded barefoot through the bathroom, she took a towel with her. (When she'd been sick with the stomach flu, her father had encouraged her to vomit in a towel.) Poor Mommy! Ruth thought, bringing her the towel.In the dim moonlight, and in the even dimmer and erratic light from the night-light that Ruth's father had installed in the bathroom, Ruth saw the pale faces of her dead brothers in the photographs on the bathroom wall. There were photos of her dead brothers throughout the house, on all the walls; although the two boys had died as teenagers, before Ruth was born (before she was even conceived), Ruth felt that she knew these vanished young men far better than she knew her mother or father.The tall, dark one with the angular face was Thomas; even at Ruth's age, when he'd been only four, Thomas had had a leading man's kind of handsomeness--a combination of poise and thuggery that, in his teenage years, gave him the seeming confidence of a much older man. (Thomas had been the driver of the doomed car.) The younger, insecure-looking one was Timothy; even as a teenager, he was baby-faced and appeared to have just been startled by something. In many of the photographs, Timothy seemed to be caught in a moment of indecision, as if he were perpetually reluctant to imitate an incredibly difficult stunt that Thomas had mastered with apparent ease. (In the end, it was something as basic as driving a car that Thomas failed to master sufficiently.)When Ruth Cole entered her parents' bedroom, she saw the naked young man who had mounted her mother from behind; he was holding her mother's breasts in his hands and humping her on all fours, like a dog, but it was neither the violence nor the repugnance of the sexual act that caused Ruth to scream. The four-year-old didn't know that she was witnessing a sexual act — nor did the young man and her mother's activity strike Ruth as entirely unpleasant. In fact, Ruth was relieved to see that her mother was not throwing up.And it wasn't the young man's nakedness that caused Ruth to scream; she had seen her father and her mother naked — nakedness was not hidden among the Coles. It was the young man himself who made Ruth scream, because she was certain he was one of her dead brothers; he looked so much like Thomas, the confident one, that Ruth Cole believed she had seen a ghost.A four-year-old's scream is a piercing sound. Ruth was astonished at the speed with which her mother's young lover dismounted; indeed, he removed himself from both the woman and her bed with such a combination of panic and zeal that he appeared to be propelled — it was almost as if a cannonball had dislodged him. He fell over the night table, and, in an effort to conceal his nakedness, removed the lamp shade from the broken bedside lamp. As such, he seemed a less menacing sort of ghost than Ruth had first judged him to be; furthermore, now that Ruth took a closer look at him, she recognized him. He was the boy who occupied the most distant guest room, the boy who drove her father's car — the boy who worked for her daddy, her mommy had said. Once or twice the boy had driven Ruth and her babysitter to the beach.That summer, Ruth had three different nannies; each of them had commented on how pale the boy was, but Ruth's mother had told her that some people just didn't like the sun. The child had never before seen the boy without his clothes, of course; yet Ruth was certain that the young man's name was Eddie and that he wasn't a ghost. Nevertheless, the four-year-old screamed again.Her mother, still on all fours on her bed, looked characteristically unsurprised; she merely viewed her daughter with an expression of discouragement edged with despair. Before Ruth could cry out a third time, her mother said, "Don't scream, honey. It's just Eddie and me. Go back to bed." Ruth Cole did as she was told, once more passing those photographs — more ghostly-seeming now than her mother's fallen ghost of a lover. Eddie, while attempting to hide himself with the lamp shade, had been oblivious to the fact that the lamp shade, being open at both ends, afforded Ruth an unobstructed view of his diminishing penis.At four, Ruth was too young to ever remember Eddie orhis penis with the greatest detail, but he would remember her. Thirty-six years later, when he was fifty-two and Ruth was forty, this ill-fated young man would fall in love with Ruth Cole. Yet not even then would he regret having fucked Ruth's mother. Alas, that would be Eddie's problem. This is Ruth's story.That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any "presence" she detected in either her mother or her father — and that, after her mother abandoned her and her father (and took with her almost all the photos of her lost sons), Ruth would wonder why her father left the picture hooks stuck in the bare walls. The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer — for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photographs had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the actual pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed. That Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; from her earliest memory, she was forced to imagine them.It was one of those automobile accidents involving teenagers that, in the aftermath, revealed that both boys had been "good kids" and that neither of them had been drinking. Worst of all, to the endless torment of their parents, the coincidence of Thomas and Timothy being in that car at that exact time, and in that specific place, was the result of an altogether avoidable quarrel between the boys' mother and father. The poor parents would relive the tragic results of their trivial argument for the rest of their lives.Later Ruth was told that she was conceived in a well-intentioned but passionless act. Ruth's parents were mistaken to even imagine that their sons were replaceable — nor did they pause to consider that the new baby who would bear the burden of their impossible expectations might be a girl.That Ruth Cole would grow up to be that rare combination of a well-respected literary novelist and an internationally best-selling author is not as remarkable as the fact that she managed to grow up at all. Those handsome young men in the photographs had stolen most of her mother's affection; however, her mother's rejection was more bearable to Ruth than growing up in the shadow of the coldness that passed between her parents.Ted Cole, a best-selling author and illustrator of books for children, was a handsome man who was better at writing and drawing for children than he was at fulfilling the daily responsibilities of fatherhood. And until Ruth was four-and-a-half, while Ted Cole was not always drunk, he frequently drank too much. It's also true that, while Ted was not a womanizer every waking minute, at no time in his life was he ever entirely nota womanizer. (Granted, this made him more unreliable with women than he was with children.)Ted had ended up writing for children by default. His literary debut was an overpraised adult novel of an indisputably literary sort. The two novels that followed aren't worth mentioning, except to say that no one — especially Ted Cole's publisher — had expressed any noticeable interest in a fourth novel, which was never written. Instead, Ted wrote his first children's book. Called The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls, it was very nearly not published; at first glance, it appeared to be one of those children's books that are of dubious appeal to parents and remain memorable to children only because children remember being frightened. At least Thomas and Timothy were frightened by The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls when Ted first told them the story; by the time Ted told it to Ruth, The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls had already frightened about nine or ten million children, in more than thirty languages, around the world.Like her dead brothers, Ruth grew up on her father's stories. When Ruth first read these stories in a book, it felt like a violation of her privacy. She'd imagined that her father had created these stories for her alone. Later she would wonder if her dead brothers had felt that their privacy had been similarly invaded.Regarding Ruth's mother: Marion Cole was a beautiful woman; she was also a good mother, at least until Ruth was born. And until the deaths of her beloved sons, she was a loyal and faithful wife — despite her husband's countless infidelities. But after the accident that took her boys away, Marion became a different woman, distant and cold. Because of her apparent indifference to her daughter, Marion was relatively easy for Ruth to reject. It would be harder for Ruth to recognize what was flawed about her father; it would also take a lot longer for her to come to this recognition, and by then it would be too late for Ruth to turn completely against him. Ted had charmed her — Ted charmed almost everyone, up to a certain age. No one was ever charmed by Marion. Poor Marion never tried to charm anyone, not even her only daughter; yet it was possible to love Marion Cole.And this is where Eddie, the unlucky young man with the inadequate lamp shade, enters the story. He loved Marion — he would never stop loving her. Naturally if he'd known from the beginning that he was going to fall in love with Ruth, he might have reconsidered falling in love with her mother. But probably not. Eddie couldn't help himself.

Bookclub Guide

1. A passionate and complex theme throughout the book is the concept of a writer's imagination. "Eddie O'Hare, who was doomed to be only autobiographical in his novels, knew better than to presume that Ruth Cole was writing about herself. He understood from the first time he read her that she was better than that" (p. 204). What role does imagination, lack of it, even fear of it, play in the lives and careers of the central characters?2. Ruth, as a novelist, sees books as inventions based on both borrowed and imagined experiences — not necessarily personal ones. However, her best friend, Hannah, a journalist, presumes that all novels are substantially autobiographical; she sees in Ruth's books a "Hannah" character, who is the adventurer, as well as a "Ruth" character, who holds herself back. Explore the ideas of fiction and imagination and the autobiographical ingredients of writing.3. What is the meaning and symbolism of the "feet" photo? Why do you think it became kind of a talisman for Ruth? What emotions does the photo evoke in you as a reader?4. Discuss the humor and the pathos of Ted Cole's oeuvre. What about the humor and pathos of Ted himself? Where does Ted's true imagination lie — if not in his writing? Is Ted's real talent — his passion, his art — the seduction of the prettiest and unhappiest of young mothers? Doesn't Ted pursue his seductions as passionately as his daughter will pursue her writing?5. During that fateful summer, Eddie, the aspiring young writer, found his voice. Marion gave him his voice. "It was losing her that had given him something to say. It was the thought of his life without Marion that provided Eddie O'Hare with the authority to write" (p. 112). Discuss the life and writing career of Eddie O'Hare: his brilliance when being truly autobiographical, and his mediocrity when it came to believability in things that were "imagined."6. When Ted tells Eddie the "story" of Thomas and Timothy's accident, he tells it in the third-person removed. "If Marion had ever told the story, she would have stood so close to it that, in the telling of it, she would have descended into a final madness — a madness much greater than whatever madness had caused Marion to abandon her only living child" (p. 154). Examine the madness. Discuss Ted's ability — and Marion's inability — to detach.7. How is Eddie, who appears as the most benign of characters, often the most powerful? For example, beginning with the restaurant "fingerprinting" scene (p. 240), he gives Ruth the gift of her past, of her mother, of other realities. How does he open the door to her future?8. "Ruth thought of a novel as a great, untidy house, a disorderly mansion; her job was to make the place fit to live in, to give it at least the semblance of order. Only when she wrote was she unafraid" (p. 267). Discuss the idea that the books in Ruth's life and the characters in them were more fixed in Ruth's life than the flesh-and-blood people closest to her — namely, her father and her best friend.9. Why do you think Ruth decides to marry Allan? Why was he so safe? How was he different from her "type" of man — a type that disturbed her so?10. Do you perceive a theme of humiliation in Ruth's novel-in-progress as well as in her own unconscious quest for humiliation? Consider the themes of women, humiliation, and control. In Amsterdam, Ruth writes in her diary: "The conventional wisdom is that prostitution is a kind of rape for money; in truth, in prostitution — maybe only in prostitution — the woman seems in charge" (p. 338). What do you think of this?11. Examine the scene after she witnesses the murder. "At last she'd found the humiliation she was looking for, but of course this was one humiliation that she wouldn't write about" (p. 375).12. Re-read the powerful car scene before Ted's suicide (p. 300). As Ted is driving, Ruth reveals the shocking incident with Scott. Her tale is one of degradation. Does it have the desired effect on her father? What does she want? Was this scene about revenge, about giving back the hurt done to her? Can matters of families, of love and hate (her father is the one she most loves and hates in her life), ever really be understood? How does this scene mirror the driving scene where Ted tells Ruth the details of her brothers' death?13. What changes occur in Ruth after she becomes a widow? How do these changes finally free her to fall in love at last?14. What kind of emotions do you feel at the ending of the book? How have the characters of Ruth, Marion, and Eddie found, in essence, their way back? How has Marion, through her books, come to terms with her grief? When she reveals to Eddie that "grief is contagious," is she effectively saying that her absence from her daughter's life was the only way she could love her or the only way she could not destroy her daughter?

From Our Editors

At the age of 39, Marion Cole left her philandering husband, abandoned her four-year-old daughter Ruth, and had an affair with a 16-year-old boy. This is where A Widow For One Year begins. It continues with Ruth, now a 36-year-old acclaimed novelist, unmarried, angry and self-contradictory. Five years later Ruth is a widow and a mother, and her child is the same age that Ruth was when her mother left. This is John Irving’s tale of self-discovery, betrayal, and first love.

Editorial Reviews

NATIONAL BESTSELLERINTERNATIONAL BESTSELLERA New York Times Notable Book "[As] satisfying as one of Shakespeare's romances ... rich in perfect details [and]... miraculous events, the sort that are longed for and cherished, the sort that sustain the imagination when reality becomes too disappointing." The Financial Post"Full of the antics of scorned lovers and infatuated youth, of madcap chases and boisterous lovemaking.... A faith in patient storytelling and the conviction that narrative hunger is part of our essence." Carol Shields, The Globe and Mail"Powerful and sophisticated.... A stunning narrative...wonderful, sumptuous, entertaining." The Ottawa Citizen"[Irving's] storytelling has never been better...engaging and affecting ... old-fashioned and modern all at once." The New York Times"Irving is at the height of his considerable literary powers. His novels burst with stories, characters, arguments, oddities and images that help us define the world we live in." Playboy