Nora Webster

By Colm Tóibín

(Scribner, $27, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Colm Tóibín is the powerhouse Irish author of many novels and winner of many prestigious awards. His books include The Blackwater Lightship; The Master (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize); Brooklyn (winner of the Costa Book Award) and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. He is also known for his travelogues on Ireland and Spain, essays, and newspaper columns. Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

What is this book about?

It is set in a village in Ireland in the 1970s. Nora Webster has been widowed young, at 40, left with four children and an overwhelming need for enough money to maintain her household and enough information to find her way in a new and confounding world she is not prepared for. Her beloved husband had helped her get away from her overbearing family; now Nora fears she will be pulled back into their stultifying way of looking at life. Nora must cope with her deep sorrow, her young boys’ need for fatherly love and her preference for privacy in a nosy world. One bright ray in the darkness of sorrow is her decision to once again lift her lovely voice in song.

Why you’ll like it:

Tóibín writes beautifully of matters of the heart, but never falls into sentimentality in this genuinely moving story of a woman forced to engage with the world at a time and in a way that she never expected. His portrait of Nora is that of a woman in full, shocked by her husband’s death and forced by circumstances to fully flower.  Nora is not perfect, but that is not a problem: Tóibín, a gay man, has created a woman so real she leaps off the page.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review , novelist Jennifer Egan writes: “…Colm Toibin’s high-wire act of an eighth novel…is written without a single physical description of its characters or adverbial signpost to guide our interpretation of their speech. The emotional distance between protagonist and reader is so great that at times the title character seems almost spectral. Yet it is precisely Toibin’s radical restraint that elevates what might have been a familiar tale of grief and survival into a realm of heightened inquiry. The result is a luminous, elliptical novel in which everyday life manages, in moments, to approach the mystical. … There is much about Nora Webster that we never know. And her very mystery is what makes her regeneration, when it comes, feel universal.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Tóibín’s 10th novel offers a compelling portrait of an Irish woman for whom fate has prescribed loneliness. Widowed at 40, with four children and shaky finances, Nora rejects condolences and pity. She is so intent on making her children’s lives normal that she ignores their need to mourn as well. In the wake of her husband’s terminal illness, she instills fear and bewilderment in her two younger boys; they have nightmares, and one begins to stutter. The two girls, away at school, are resentful as well. Nora is sometimes obtuse about the choices she makes. She is short-tempered and sharp-tongued, and she makes significant mistakes—but her frailties make her an appealing character. Catholicism is woven into the setting of 1970s Enniscorthy. The Church is represented by a mean, small-minded teacher in the Christian Brothers monastery school and by a saintly nun who acts as guardian angel for the family. Several years pass, in which Nora gradually finds an unexpected fulfillment in a talent she had never acknowledged. Tóibín (Brooklyn) never employs dramatic fireworks to add an artificial boost to the narrative. No new suitor magically appears to fall in love with Nora. Instead, she remains a brave woman learning how to find a meaningful life as she goes on alone.”

The starred review from Kirkus says: “A subtle, pitch-perfect sonata of a novel in which an Irish widow faces her empty life and, incrementally, fills the hole left by the recent death of her husband. Tóibín’s latest serves as a companion piece to his masterful Brooklyn (2009), which detailed a young Irish woman’s emigration in the 1950s. Set a decade later, this novel concerns a woman who stayed behind, the opportunities that went unexplored and the comforts that support her through tragedy. Left with two young sons (as well as daughters on the verge of adulthood) by the death of her husband, a beloved teacher, Nora exists in a “world filled with absences.” Not that she’s been abandoned. To the contrary, people won’t leave her alone, and their clichéd advice and condolences are the banes of her existence. And there’s simply no escape in a village where everybody knows everything about everybody else. What she craves are people who “could talk to her sensibly not about what she had lost or how sorry they were, but about the children, money, part-time work, how to live now.” Yet she had lived so much through her husband—even before his unexpected illness and death—that she hadn’t really connected with other people, including her young sons, who now need more from her than perhaps she has to give. Without any forced drama, Nora works her way back into the world, with new priorities and even pleasures. There’s a spiritual undercurrent here, in the nun who watches over Nora, in the community that provides what she needs (even as she resists) and especially in the music that fills her soul. Explains a woman she would never have encountered, left to her own devices: “There is no better way to heal yourself than singing in a choir. That is why God made music.” A novel of mourning, healing and awakening; its plainspoken eloquence never succumbs to the sentimentality its heroine would reject.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of Tóibín’s latest novel.

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