Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Talk to a Widower

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the September 6, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website.

More often than not, I tend to read in themes. If I’ve liked a book and I haven’t quite been ready for it to end, I’ll often find another to fill the gap. This spring I found myself reading fictionalized accounts of the journey of widowers through their grief and retrospectively their past marriages. They are tender, and often comic, stories of the passage from shock and heartache to the possibilities of second chances.

In Hilma Wolitzer’s “An Available Man” (January 2012), Edward Schuyler finds himself suddenly alone at the young age of 62 after the death of his beloved wife. Edward is a bookish, retired science teacher whose wife Bee dies a bit too quickly of pancreatic cancer. After her death, and six months of shocking grief, Edward’s family and friends find him staring at his bird-feeders in the back yard, mechanically paying his bills and ironing Bee’s blouses left in the laundry basket after her death.

While she is dying, Bee made a prediction about “available women.” “Look at you,” she told Edward, “they’ll be crawling out of the woodwork.” Edward, however, doesn’t feel very available. Bee’s voice still greets callers on the message machine and Edward is content attending to his 15-year old grizzled and arthritic dog, Bingo. He dutifully answers the concerned calls of his stepchildren and sympathetic friends. Starting over is simply a foreign thought to him. He is, in fact, disgusted when the inevitable calls from “available women” start coming as predicted.

Even his own stepchildren feel the need to step in when they create personal ads that attract readers of The New York Review of Books. Edward is a bit shell-shocked at first, but with some fits and starts, he finds his way through his grief, actually realizing that he is not betraying Bee’s memory but honoring it by finding love again. “An Available Man” resounds with compassion, confusion and hilarity. It is a tender story of the madness and wonder of falling in love the second time around.

I have always loved Anne Tyler’s books since reading “Dinner at a Homesick Restaurant” (1982) and “Breathing Lessons” (1988). “The Beginner’s Goodbye” is Tyler’s nineteenth novel in a long line of books with quirky characters. Tyler’s books are most often set in or near her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland and her heroes are sad-sack types more often in the middle of some midlife crisis.

In “The Beginner’s Goodbye”, Aaron Woolcott’s crisis is that his wife, Dorothy, has died in a tragic accident when a backyard oak tree falls on their house. Aaron is a limping, geeky book editor of ‘beginner’ books much like the Dummy books: “The Beginner’s Wine Guide” and the “Beginner’s Monthly Budget.” He and his wife Dorothy met, in fact, while he was editing “The Beginner’s Cancer”.

Dorothy is eight years older 15 inches shorter than Aaron and agreed to a first date before because she had nothing else to do. Dorothy eats six Triscuits at the end of every workday simply because she likes them and the box recommends a serving size of six. Although they spent many years in an unremarkable but suitable marriage, it is no surprise that when Dorothy dies that Aaron is shocked. Grief-stricken and alone he begins a rather glum routine which includes moving in with his sister while his home is repaired. Oh, and receiving visitations from Dorothy’s ghost.

Through Aaron’s grief process, he reexamines the marriage and realizes that it might have been more of an awkward and convenient friendship rather than a wedded bliss. Although Aaron is ripped apart by the death of Dorothy, he is able to settle some unfinished emotional business and through her frequent appearances (which include the market and the curb) he is able to move on to a second chance at happiness.

“How to Talk to a Widower” (2007) by Jonathan Tropper mixes incredible comedic moments with heart-wrenching ones. Doug Parker is left a widower at age twenty-nine when his wife dies in a plane crash on an ill-fated business trip. Doug’s story is repeated time and time again – “I had a wife. Her name was Hailey. Now she’s gone. And so am I.” Doug begins an existence of the poster boy of young widowers and refuses to move on. He is annoying and self-centered. However, complicating the story is the fact that he needs to continue to be a stepfather to his stepson, Russ. Doug’s incredibly dysfunctional family (two sisters and his parents) wants him to rise above his pathos and self-pity and snap out of it. Available women want Doug to become present and accessible to them. It is a tender story of love taken so soon from both a husband and a boy. In the end, Doug emerges from his grief a stronger man able to father the boy who needs him.

There are many books about widowers that I did not read in my journey. Elizabeth Strout’s “Abide With Me” (2006) is a story about a young father after the death of his young wife. Set in Maine, Tyler Caskey struggles through with his faith, with his congregation and with abandonment and dark secrets. “The Law of Similars” (1998) by best-selling author Chris Bohjalian is also set in a New England town, this one Vermont. Leland Fowler, deputy state prosecutor is also raising a small daughter – alone and widowed. In Will North’s “The Long Walk Home” (2007), Alec Hudson is an American who travels to North Wales to scatter the ashes of his wife atop a mountain they had climbed together. It is yet another story of love and loss and the complex struggle of another widower torn between grief and hope or death and life beyond it.

If you would like to reserve any of the titles above please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-769-0200, or visit the Minuteman Library Network catalog online to reserve them.