Physically fit and mentally composed at 70 years of age, Percy Darling has recently retired from Harvard’s prestigious Widener Library. A kindly man with a librarian’s intellectual bent, he lives alone in a beautiful colonial-era home in rustic Matlock, a town situated beyond the bustling reaches of Boston and its teeming suburbs. His wife died years ago and his two daughters are grown with lives of their own. He looks forward to the luxury of time. A lifelong bibliophile, Percy will spend his days in voluptuous communion with literature. He jogs through his resplendent environs and regularly swims naked and alone in the lovely pond bordering the back of his property. Such are the rewards of a life of diligence and dedication.
Beautiful Matlock provides much of the setting for award-winning author Julia Glass’s latest novel. It is like a colonial museum, a classic New England countryside that would inspire verse from Robert Frost. But the turbulence of the outside world is about to intrude upon Percy’s sumptuous retreat. Now that he is not working Percy observes local changes that until now he never really noticed. Some venerable homes have had alterations and structural additions that clash with historic architectural designs. Traditional landscapes in other parts of the old community have been groomed and prettied and look nothing like what was there before. It is mildly offensive and unsettling.
However Percy is not a political troglodyte. He is a man of a liberal disposition and contemplates socioeconomic shifts that have transformed the area. Matlock was once home to working-class people along with well-paid, salaried professionals. He recalls his late friend Ben Stewart, “an English teacher at our top-notch elementary school” who noted how Matlock had gradually become an “enclave” of privilege. Now Buck the plumber, Calvin the electrician, and Vince the gas station attendant would never be able to reside there. “Where were these men now? Were they still alive? Even our elementary school teachers, the Bens, could no longer afford to live among us.”
Before retiring Percy had already encountered significant change as cutting edge technologies rippled through his place of employment. Once “a temple dedicated to the guardianship of books or a sanctuary for the hallowed art of reading,” the library had become “a zone of cyberkinetic value, a brain as viewed by the cold, lizardly pathologist: a numbingly gray place, of systems and writing, of knowledge-related transactions that may or may not … require the use of books. A library is now far more like a bank than like a church or a museum — cause for rejoicing in the minds of the Orwellian clerks who service its needs.”
More seismic happenings are in store for Percy the erstwhile hermit. His older daughter Clover is dealing with serious family troubles. Living apart from her husband and two children, she has become involved with a preschool known by the outlandish name “Elves and Fairies.” The school needs a new location and Clover convinces Percy to allow the ancient barn on his property — where his late beloved wife once taught dance — to be remade into a state-of-the-art educational facility for little kids.
This brings Percy’s contemplative idyll to an end: “All summer long I refused to go anywhere near the barn, let alone set foot inside. I knew my resistance was petty, but I could not yet relinquish my need to preserve the one place where my wife’s spirit still reigned supreme. On many a day, I turned up Beethoven to drown out the whine of electric tools, the hollow tumbling of two-by fours, the merriment of hardworking men telling lewd jokes in a foreign language.”
Indeed while all of the Matlock’s residents are white, a daily influx of landscape workers and handymen of an ethnicity very different from the old Yankee families descends upon local homes, lawns and gardens. It is such a crew that turns Percy’s barn into a splendid new home for Elves and Fairies preschool.
Percy’s younger daughter Trudy is a revered oncologist whose practice is all consuming. She is happily married to a good husband who has his own profession as a couples’ counselor. Their only child Robert is a brilliant young man enrolled at Harvard. Grandfather Percy adores Robert and maintains a close bond with him. Robert’s endearing and ebullient friend from Harvard, Arturo Cabrera, is becoming increasingly drawn to issues of ecology and planetary survival. His charm and charisma will involve Robert in the surreptitious ventures of the shadowy activist group who call themselves “Denounce Our Greedy Society,” DOGS.
After years of voluntary monkhood and much to his own surprise, Percy falls in love with a woman named Sarah who has a little boy. Younger than Percy, she is an accomplished artist who works with stained glass. In one scene she shows him a work in progress by flipping through photos of the artwork on her digital camera. He finds this odd. “I told her this wasn’t an easy way to look at pictures, whatever happened to snapshots?”
“The Widower’s Tale” is a breezy read, an alluring multifaceted story that from multiple perspectives looks at issues of life, loss, love and change.