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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Reading the final stretch

There's a magical point in good books when a writer has sufficiently hooked me into the story that I can do nothing else but finish the story. A few minutes ago I just finished John Irving's "A Widow for One Year." At 537 pages, I thought it would take me a while to read. But last night I reached the point of no return, plowing through the final 200 pages.

This wasn't a literary masterpiece, nor is it Irving's greatest work. I'd say "A Prayer for Owen Meany" holds that distinction. Throughout the story I kept thinking of how little I liked the main characters. Ruth Cole was a hardened woman, a writer of some note though I can't say the subject of her novels sounded appealing to me. Leary of people in general and stubborn in her unwillingness to see how her real life played out in her novels, she wanted certain things for herself, but seemed for a while utterly ineffectual at righting her course.

Eddie O'Hare seemed doomed to be a bumbling 16-year-old forever, with a perpetual hard on for the older woman who seduced him as a boy. His only moments of grace came when he assisted old women after Ruth had publicly reduced them to nothing. Ted Cole was a letch of a man and not much better as a father to Ruth. Hannah Grant was his female alter ego and hardly the ideal best friend to Ruth since she had to keep one eye on her wandering, predatory friend, destined to repeatedly let her down.

And then there is Marion Cole, Ruth's mother so overcome with grief from the tragic death of her two sons before Ruth's birth and the emotional vacuum of a loveless marriage, that she leaves her 4-year-old daughter for fear that her grief would be contagious and that in loving her she would risk losing her. It's hard to find much emotional attachment to Marion. She makes periodic appearances throughout the story and yet her presence or non-presence looms over everyone in the novel. Yet as a mother I can identify with certain vulnerabilities, certain unspeakable and unthinkable fears that Marion embodies.

There were parts of this novel that seemed to veer off into the ludicrous. Having never written a novel, it seems to have taken an extraordinary amount of words to set up Ruth's ultimate love. In the middle of the book as we're getting extraneous, detailed views of Amsterdam's red-light district, it almost feels as if the wheels have come off the narrative. Only later does it become apparent that Ruth's devastating experience there is what changes her outlook and ultimately the course of her life.

She softens, she learns to love, she becomes a mother, she loses and then she finds the love she's always wanted. Just think it could have been accomplished in fewer pages.

Before she becomes likeable as a woman, I was drawn to Ruth the writer. I liked reading how a plot line for new book would form in her mind and how she would test it and develop it mentally before ever committing a word to the page. How her brain would wander around the characters and the idea, bringing in certain details, discarding others. One assumes this is how Irving begins his writing process since he writes of it so intimately. If not, then he does a good job of faking it.

What ultimately hooked me in Irving's story is the power to change our lives for the better. I'm a firm believer in second chances, in redemption and in the human capacity for forgiveness.

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