A lovely and simply told tale of grief and loss, survival and renewal. This is the story of Nora Webster, a newly-widowed 40-year-old woman in a claustrophobic Irish town who must suddenly face not just the challenge of financial security and raising her children without a husband, but how to step back into the mainstream of life after 21 years of housekeeping and childrearing. She is depressed, angry, secretive, and resentful in turns, and often too self-absorbed to help her children with their grief. She is not terrible loveable at first but slowly and warily, we grow with Nora, beyond her pain and into her new self.
Toibin’s writing is so simple as to appear almost pedestrian, but where it annoyed the heck out of me in his Brooklyn which I reviewed earlier this year, in Nora Webster, the tone and the simple language perfectly matches the ambience of the town and the mindset of this very practical woman, who one day is stunned to realize that she can make a decision without consulting anyone, and gets her first taste of self-liberation. There are so many poignant female moments in this book that it’s hard to realize that it was in fact written by a man. I was especially struck by her repeated fear of contradicting or challenging her children (two grown daughters and two adolescent sons) for fear of losing their love and their place in her life, and her unexpected jealousy of a sister-in-law who mentors her grief-stricken eldest son.
Simple decisions, like coloring her hair and buying a bright-colored dress despite the conventions of drab grey widowhood, are as revealing as her more complex decisions to sell the family’s decrepit summer cottage, take voice lessons and join a union. There are a number of digressions by the author into Ireland’s volatile politics, which provide a broader context for Nora’s personal struggle but which could perhaps have been shortened. We observe with excruciating sympathy as Nora waffles forever over the “luxurious” purchase of a phonograph, but then get to laugh in sheer delight at her orgy of record-buying. Her grief over losing her beloved Maurice slowly yields to her growing independence, and while there were moments in dealing with her children that seemed oddly jarring, I found Nora’s journey of self-discovery to be nothing short of inspirational.