Like many people, I fell in love with Beresford-Howe’s work after reading her gorgeous The Book of Eve. She writes so well about the experience of womanhood, of middle age and beyond, freedom often being a theme. Like ‘Eve’ (a senior citizen who reinvents herself)… the title character of A Serious Widow (Rowena) finds herself suddenly ‘free’ of a loveless marriage. Unlike Eve, however, Rowena is more bitter than celebratory and that seems to make at least some of the difference.
Turns out that Rowena’s husband has for decades been leading a double life and has a whole other very normal family in Ottawa, where he spent one week a month ‘on business’. Rowena discovers this only after his death. The other family is equally clueless about the duplicity but, unlike Rowena, the other wife was The First Wife, making that family more legit. At least as far as the estate goes.
To further complicate matters, no will can be found.
The premise of the book is pretty much to find the will and in the process Rowena finds her sense of self. As with Eve, she takes up with a few unlikely-but-nice, usually older, frumpy chaps but who surprise her sometimes in Fabio-like ways.
I thoroughly enjoy Beresford-Howe’s writing and her style and respect her feminist leanings at a time when such leaning may not have been entirely popular (I read somewhere that she was a tiny innocuous-appearing firecracker of a thing who quietly, yet fiercely, stood for what she believed in— including Canadian spelling when publishers tried to convince her to go U.S.). While I’d recommend the book, I’d add that I’d have liked it better as a novella. Not everything needs to be a full length novel. (And do not get me started on foie gras books, i.e. those stuffed mercilessly with fatty content…)
Despite my opinion on the unnecessary word count, there is indeed much loveliness in the book. Relationships mostly between older people, and parents and grown children. It would appeal to anyone who liked Hotel du Lac, for example, by Anita Brookner or, more recently, And The Birds Rained Down, by Jocelyne Saucier, where themes of change, aging, loss are not seen as a negative but merely part of life to be lived with as much pleasure as the bits that preceded it. And often more.
This from a scene where one of Rowena’s lovers tells her what it was like entering his mother’s room after her death.
“She looked exactly as she did when I left her just a few hours before, as if she were asleep. But it was different, because she wasn’t there anymore, Rowena. She’d gone—somewhere. For good. No mistake about that. Nothing could possibly be more empty than that room”
And later, in the same scene, this from Rowena’s pov after her bereaved lover has finally found sleep:
“With care I draw off his glasses and tuck the afghan around him. Outside like another voice the November wind shakes the windowpane. Wiping my own eyes, I turn out all the lights and leave him sleeping there. Sooner or later, one way or another, I think, we’re all orphans. It should make us kinder to each other than it does.”
I’ve been reading and re-reading Beresford-Howe for years and was sad when she died in 2016 at age 93. I’d always meant to write her a note to thank her for her work. (I wonder now, what was my plan? To wait until she was 94?) Ah well, this post will have to do instead.