A dissatisfied patriarch heads up the cast of Julia Glass’ fourth novel, The Widower’s Tale. It’s her first since her debut, Three Junes, to feature predominately male voices, although the inconsistency of those voices saps the book of dramatic tension. Percy Darling feels the modern world constantly encroaching on him from his suburban Massachusetts town. Just as he’s settling into a comfortable retirement, his daughter Clover leaves her husband and children, landing back at home for an unspecified amount of time. The price of her independence turns out to be renting out his late wife’s barn-turned-dance-studio to a local progressive preschool, the kind of cheery institution he’s always despised. Percy spots this development as the main source of turmoil in his life, but the more he looks, the more trouble is around him. His grandson Robert, a Harvard pre-med, has been spending more time with a campus radical named Turo. His niece and nephew, Clover’s children, are steeling themselves for a custody battle between her and her potentially unfit husband. And for the first time since his wife’s death, a woman (and parent at the school) has made him want to open up.
Glass is effusive with detail in The Widower’s Tale, sometimes to a fault: Percy continuing his daily swim in the pond where his wife drowned expresses more in one stark detail than several following chapters in his voice, much less others’ conversations about him. Glass’ ear for her narrators is expansive but uneven: The character of Celestino, a former scholarship student turned gardener, watchful of INS raids, is quietly moving, but the sections involving preschool teacher Ira waver in their precision and consistency. Robert’s narration is littered with slang rather than truly replicating the patterns of a college student, even an intellectual, perceptive one.
Still, as with her previous books The Whole World Over and I See You Everywhere, The Widower’s Tale expertly sets up thoughtful parallels among its disorderly crowd. A scene in which Percy takes his other daughter—Trudy, a workaholic oncologist—to lunch echoes Ira’s emotional detachment from his job, and its exquisite tension in turn mirrors Percy’s romance and the way he perceives its dangers and risks. Particularly in their culmination, Glass’ novels nestle in the crease where painful meets predictable, but these late vignettes rescue the book from its distracting language, allowing her keen human perception to filter through.