"A Widow for One Year," the enormously entertaining new novel by John Irving, is all narrative, all character, all author. This is to be expected from Irving, a writer who describes his fiction as "old-fashioned" and looks to 19th century novels as the model for his work. It's the measure of his achievement here that in a book spanning 40 years and nearly 600 pages, you feel when it's over that you've spent your time wisely, not just with the story and its protagonists, but with their creator, too, whose voice remains as forceful and distinctive as his characters' without once intruding where it doesn't belong.
The "widow" of Irving's title is Ruth Cole, just 4 years old when the novel opens in 1958. "This is Ruth's story," says Irving slyly, though anyone who's read his books before will guess that Ruth's story quickly becomes many stories. Ruth is the child of a stupendously successful children's book writer, Ted Cole, hard-drinking and a "womanizer," and his beautiful, distant wife, Marion. Before Ruth's birth, the Coles had suffered the loss of their two teenage sons, Thomas and Timothy, in a car wreck on Long Island. Ruth is the boys' wary replacement, born to a house of grief and relentless memories, instructed in the lives of her dead brothers from her first moment of consciousness and surrounded by their photographs until Marion suddenly leaves Ted, taking all the pictures with her and disappearing forever from Ruth's life. The immediate instigator of Marion's departure is Eddie O'Hare, a 16-year-old Exeter student employed as an assistant by Ted one summer with the express idea that he will have an affair with Marion; that Marion will see in Eddie the image of her lost sons; that divorce will ensue and that Ted, finally, will have custody of Ruth.
But be warned: This is only the set-up for the tale. As usual with Irving, "A Widow for One Year" is an epic tragedy told in madcap terms. Ruth grows up to be a bestselling novelist; Eddie also writes books, though not as successfully; Ted carries on drinking and seducing other men's wives; and Marion -- but to tell about Marion would be playing unfair. It's familiar Irving territory, wildly comic, ruminative and spread all over the globe. In the end, however, this is a novel about biography and the nature of fiction, a well-known theme of Irving's that doesn't suffer in the retelling.
"Ruth Cole's credo amounted to a war against the roman ` clef," Irving writes pointedly, "a put-down of the autobiographical novel ... She asserted that the best fictional detail was a chosen detail, not a remembered one -- for fictional truth was not only the truth of observation, which was the truth of mere journalism. The best fictional detail was the detail that should have defined the character or the episode or the atmosphere. Fictional truth was what should have happened in a story -- not necessarily what did happen or what had happened." A lot happens in "A Widow for One Year," of that you can be sure. It's a welcome and robust roar to life from one of our finest storytellers.