Monday, December 6

How to Talk to a Widower - Jonathan Tropper

When Doug Parker married Hailey - beautiful, smart and ten years older - he left his carefree Manhattan lie behind to live with her and her teenage son, Russ, in a quiet Westchester community. Three years later, Hailey has been dead for a year, and Doug - a widower at twenty-nine - just wants to drown himself in self-pity and Jack Daniels. But his family has other ideas...
I initially picked by How to talk to a Widower because of the title, while I was at a secondhand bookshop one day looking for something to tide me over if the only book I had with me ran out before I got home. I was sold by the blurb above; not only is the general premise interesting, but the opening scene captured me - submerged in grief, Doug is dragged from his date with bourbon to receive temporary custody of his stoned unofficial step-son from a state trooper.
Tropper manages to beautifully articulate the consuming, wave-like nature of grief, which leaves you feeling as though equilibrium has be regained only to avalanche over you with no warning, the expectations of others that it's time to reinvest in your own life (or, more often, express interest in their lives) though grief still has you in her clutches, the way shared loss can be uniting or divisive, the seductively painful conjurings of 'what if' and the irrationality of hating the happiness of others.
In this case that last is the new love between Doug's sister Debbie, who met his friend Mike while the family were sitting Shiva, deepening their meeting in the den and now getting ready to marry. Had it not been for Hailey's death they never would have met, and Doug cannot countenance anything good coming from something so terrible. He also holds on to his grief with both hands, feeling as though mourning less wholly will be a betrayal of Hailey.
A writer before Hailey's death, Doug articulates his pain in columns about his grief, columns that are attracting an increasing audience. Though the idea of profiting from Hailey's death sickens him, Doug's agent is brokering a book deal.
There are so many well crafted elements here - there's a very strong secondary plot about Doug's twin sister Claire, estranged from her husband and accidentally pregnant. There's pressure from his mother to date again, her conviction that a year is long enough at war with Doug's conviction that eternity is too brief a period to mourn yet anticipating the time when his relationship with Hailey will be a faded fragment of his past, that
one day, an older version of me will tell his children how he's been married once, before he ever met their mother, but that his wife had died, and Hailey will be not a person to them but a small, intangible, biographical blip, a sad thing that happened to their father on the way to happy ever after. And worse, maybe that's how I'll see it too.
And I don't need you to tell me that this will happen, that it's inevitable. I'm not fooling myself. But just because something's true, it doesn't mean I'm ready to face it today...
And contrasting with the instant, unexpected death of Hailey in a plane crash is the gradual, insidious death of his father from Alzheimer's, and doug's lack of a monopoly on grief. As his mother says,
You lost your wife, Douglas. My heart breaks for you, it really does. But I lose my husband every day, all over again. And I don't even get to mourn.
And the tragedy of dementia, of course, is the brief returns to lucidity that are unpredictable and as heart-breaking as the total lack of recognition of those who were once deeply loved.
How to talk to a Widower is powerful, compelling and engrossing. The writing is invisibly crafted, carrying the reader without effort through turbulence and rapids, a stunningly clear portrayal of grief and loss and hope and love. - Alex

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