A Widow for One Year

A Widow for One Year

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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 crucial 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 in the fall of 1990, when Ruth 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780788720215
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 07/11/2001
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 2.75(h) x 6.30(d)

About the Author

John Irving has been nominated for a National Book Award three times—winning once, in 1980, for the novel The World According to Garp. In 1992, Mr. Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In 2000, he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules—a film with seven Academy Award nominations.



Date of Birth:

March 2, 1942

Place of Birth:

Exeter, New Hampshire


B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967

Read an Excerpt

Summer 1958
The Inadequate Lamp Shade

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. 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.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"[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 ... He offers ... 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

"[A] rich, great new novel ... profoundly engaging and lively ... Irving unearths [the] departed beauty in our lives."
Quill & Quire

"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."

Reading Group 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. Examine: "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. Discuss the theme of humiliation in her novel-in-progress as well as Ruth's own unconscious quest for humiliation. Examine 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. Examine the powerful car scene before Ted's suicide. 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? Of course this scene mirrors the driving scene where Ted tells Ruth the details of her brothers' death. Discuss.

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?

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Widow for One Year 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 136 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'A Widow for One Year' is arguably John Irving's best novel, and if not that, at least a shining example of a writer at the peak of his powers. Make no mistake, however: John Irving is a 19th-century storyteller. He is concerned with character development through the passage of time, so there is no discernable plot to speak of. Others complain about a disjointedness to the novel, yet that is the primary characteristic of the bildungsroman. Ruth Cole is Irving's strongest and most frustrating character she is never entirely likable, nor are her family and friends exactly 'normal.' A bit of suspension of disbelief might be necessary for some readers, but that's part in parcel with the novel's brilliance whether we acknowledge it or not, life is full of tragedy and coincidence. A cynic's view is to dismiss such contrivances as hokey, yet the true storyteller delights not in hokum but in the patent absurdity of human existence. Our individual navigation through the ridiculous happenstances which people our lives to Irving clearly our most valuable characteristics. Irving paints in broad strokes, casting his characters' lives over sixty years. They never end up as we expect, and yet the novel's most touching moments are its conclusion, which takes place exactly as we would expect. 'A Widow for One Year' is a broad, ribald, erotic, and sublime work of art by one of our country's greatest living writers.
tcarmen More than 1 year ago
Irving's novel is compelling and provocative. His writing style presents beautifully composed prose that is intellectually stimulating as well as readable. This novel presents characters who reflect the shadows with which many of us live. The novel progresses as they search for meaning and fulfillment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Irving is an excellent story teller and I was hooked from the first few pages. I love that he says something and then flashes back to explain. Sometimes he'll be telling the story and give something away that is about to happen but you forget and keep reading on and then you read about the events that lead to his forshadowing statement. Amazing story, the end was a bit of a disappointment, but most authors can't always satisfy the reader with regards to endings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the fourth Irving novel I have read; like his other novels, the reader truly gets to know the characters throughout their lives. At times, I could not put the book down; I enjoy Irving's dry, dark sense of humor.I also love that the book takes place in Sagoponack, Long Island- the reader gets a glimpse into NY high society. If you haven't read 'The Hotel New Hampshire' yet, check out this book before 'A Widow for one Year.'
Fowler More than 1 year ago
Terrific and still fresh after a bunch of years. Truly a pleasure to read, so incredibly vivid and well rendered. Definitely recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
John Irving creates characters and moments that stay with the reader long after you finish reading. His novels, however, are not for the faint of heart, and the plots are so intricate that they virtually defy explanation (at least no description I could provide would do his novels justice). No author can write a more shocking or disturbing scene - and Irving can create shocking and disturbing scenes that leave the reader either wiping away tears of laughter or gaping in horror. Irving thinks of everything as he constructs his scenes and develops his characters, and the result is an extremely richly detailed, and satisfying story. Every time I finish an Irving novel, my most difficult decision is which one to read next. A Widow for One Year is not my favorite Irving novel (see The World According to Garp for that), but it is still a tremendous, moving, and highly enjoyable story. To understand though, you just have to read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book full of quirky characters and intricately woven details. This is a must read! Best last line in context of the book as a whole. Read it then pass it on to your friends.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Irving is a master at storytelling. He made me laugh and criticize the characters as if they were real people. All of the italics were a bit exhausting, but that is all that I had a problem with. This was my 1st John Irving novel, but most definitely not the last.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Katie_H on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
andafiro on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
(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. ;-)
mydomino1978 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Irving does it again. He takes family dysfunction to new levels, and makes you love the characters. He gives them so much dimension. One of my favorite authors, in this he deals with grief, abandonment, disloyalty and loyalty. Things never turn out the way they seem they will. It is nice to read an author who is not predictible and formulaic.
edwinbcn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very well written, but really over the top (would we expect otherwise?) I haven't read any books by John Irving for a while, and enjoyed this one. For some time, when I was a student, Irving was one of my favourite authors, but reading The fourth hand a few years ago was a disappointment. Now, I do no longer care so much for the hilarity, some of real gross. Of course, the episode in Amsterdam appealed to me, and I thought it was well done.Probably, quite a number of Irving's books would work just as well, or even better, if they were at least a third shorter. I sometimes wished that was the case with this book.
jettelandberg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A really sad and quiet story I can't quite remember, just that it filled med with a pleasant and sad feeling
lynettemilligan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of my favorites. I loved that the main character was so incredibly flawed. Every time I go to turn left I think about what way my wheels are turned.
Appliquetion on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the journey into the life of Ruth and her family. The twists the relationships took left me smiling as I compared them to relationships I have had or seen others have. The story celebrated all the dysfunctionalism that life is well known for.I liked how the story inter-weaved the past and present in a continuous flow that showed how life isn't a neat little box after all.I will defiantly recommend this book to others.
unlikelyaristotle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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'.
JCO123 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent book. This is why John Irving has always been one of my favorite authors. This one is about a quirky family of authors. Very well written as usual.
bagambo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
xmaystarx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book, very memorable with haunting images. The hooks on the walls...
rcooper3589 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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!!
aliciamalia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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).
debra47 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've been a longtime fan of John Irving. I would have to say this book is my favorite of his. I liked the fact that there were several stories going on at the same time.
bekahjohnston on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My favorite of John Irving's novels. Hilarious, yet tragic.
estellen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.