If you know previous works by Julia Glass, like her National Book Award-winning debut, Three Junes (2002), you'll probably be inclined to take her fourth novel, The Widower's Tale, as another example of well-crafted bourgeois realism.
The book seems to encourage this view, with its intertwined stories of well-educated, well-off characters managing real-world problems in a recognizable milieu where many readers will feel at home. The Widower's Tale further invites comparison with the author's earlier work: Three Junes featured a widower, too, and this is her second straight novel involving breast cancer, for which Glass herself has been treated.
If you do try to take The Widower's Tale straight, however, you may find your brow—the middle one—frequently raised. The book's very busy, too-many-cooks plot revolves around the titular widower's abortive romance with a bohemian stained-glass artist, the involvement of his grandson, a Harvard student, with an environmentalist group, his employment of a lovelorn Guatemalan gardener and the doings of a preschool in his backyard. The story is full of tangled improbabilities that slow the book down and ultimately dissolve into uniformly happy endings—a hash of overcomplication settled by oversimplification. And the novel's milieu, a sort of blue-state imaginary, is familiar but insular. (When a divorce lawyer warns his lover, "One of us has to stay in touch with the real world," you smirk because this isn't one.)
The book's title may provide a major clue to a different way to read it. That word tale—as in fairy—is important, and its principal narrator's voice suits the style. Percival ("Percy") Darling—a retired librarian and self-glossed curmudgeon whose old-coot jocoseness and librarian's glib literariness set the novel's whimsical, impish tone—has been living in comfortably numb bereavement for three decades. His exasperated paramour finally grouses, "Why are you always so arch when things get serious?" (It's a complaint that could be leveled mildly at the author, too.)
As the story opens, Percy has been persuaded to cede the unused barn behind his 250-year-old farmhouse, in what is now suburban Boston, to the local preschool, which has lost its previous home. The school's name? Elves & Fairies. That's our second clue—it comes on the book's first page—to how we might approach the book. If you read The Widower's Tale not as realism but as a tale of elves and fairies—as a modern fantasy—the book is more satisfying. Its overabundance of quirky characters recalls A Midsummer Night's Dream, or creatures in a glade or bosk, many of whom are beautiful, intelligent, lusty, bosomy women (men are often breast-bedazzled here). It won't seem absurd that the 70-year-old Percy finally takes the love plunge after he purchases a pair of swim trunks and is immediately smitten by the shop "girl," who is 51 years old. She is named Sarah Straight, and she sports much younger, bohemian looks and ways (and "unvanquished breasts"). Sarah lives with her adopted Guatemalan son, a well-behaved boy who happens to attend Elves & Fairies in Percy's backyard. Later, when she gets breast cancer, Percy's daughter Trudy, an oncologist—another narrative convenience—comes to the rescue.
Trudy is not the only angel in The Widower's Tale. Glass deploys her own characters as elves and fairies, cleaning up other people's messes and granting wishes. Although they sometimes bumble their way into mistakes—or abet the wrongdoings of others—and are often nagged by chattering, self-doubting and sometimes cynical consciences, these are unfailingly decent people, well-to-do do-gooders. Glass writes of one character's "life with few concerns, a temperament unclouded by neuroses." She could be describing nearly all of them. They seem to lack the capacity for deceit and malice. The book's lone voluntary malefaction—really just "a college prank gone haywire," as one character notes—springs from idealism, not spite, and its culprit is gently nudged away from consequence by a benign banishment from the scene.
It would seem, then, that this is a fairy tale without a villain. But there is one, albeit unseen, and it isn't a creature but an ideology. Although The Widower's Tale is by no means a political book, it does wave its wand toward health care reform, gay marriage (legal in Massachusetts), immigration law and Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, which underlies the action via the occasional background burble of NPR, while people devein shrimp or make asparagus risotto. Glass sets a bright collage of the social values and material culture of what one character jocularly calls "landed liberals" on a poster board of blue-state causes, and she gets away with decrying, and even punishing, overconsumption—often considered a disease of the right—while tastefully celebrating it.
American gluttony is never more strongly affirmed than by the winter holidays. Fittingly, the warm and well-fed Widower's Tale includes an extended Thanksgiving sequence, and that helps suggest a third way to read it: right now. It isn't just our appetites and acquisitiveness that expand from Thanksgiving to Christmas. There's also our charity, forgiveness and wishful thinking—in which the wishes are often, amazingly, granted. These are our national days of elves and fairies. The Widower's Tale speaks to the season.