by Evelyn Somers
Coming away from either of the two novels that bookend Julia Glass’s work to date—Three Junes (2002) and her 2010 novel The Widower’s Tale—the reader has a sense that his or her personal world has suddenly become claustrophobic by comparison. It’s not that Glass’s characters are such worldly types—some are; some aren’t. It’s that Glass’s perspective is assuredly cosmopolitan, even when she’s working within the confines of family relationships or smallish communities, like the Matlock, Massachusetts, of the latest novel. Glass is an “overpacker,” (her word), and we suspect that there are few things she wouldn’t try to enfold into her story, if her imagination and characters happened to lean in that direction. That’s the world Glass’s characters live in. It’s sprawling and complex, and connections are as numerous as the proverbial grains of sand.
Since 2002, when Julia Glass’s debut novel Three Junes appeared, she has published two more novels and a book of linked stories, none of them slight. A fifth book, And the Dark Sacred Night, is forthcoming in April. Glass writes about the complicatedness of civilized life. If that sounds ineffably broad, it is. Family is central, but it’s not the sole focus of her work, and it’s not the boundary. Is there a boundary? When she started to write seriously, in her thirties, she says, she wanted to create “intricately realistic worlds.” Though she does not deliberately set out to tackle hot-button topics (homosexuality, immigration, AIDS, breast cancer, and ecological activism all appear in her work), a large part of Glass’s realism comes from the intersection of her characters’ lives with the cultural and political issues that surround them. Hers is a very contemporary view, and it’s balanced and intelligent. Even the first novel, Three Junes, which memorably—and poignantly—incorporated the AIDS epidemic into its fabric, is distinguished by a mature conviction that “the personal is political.”
Readers who aren’t well-acquainted with Julia Glass’s books may know just this one thing about her: that in her mid-forties she came seemingly out of nowhere with Three Junes to slip past Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, among others, to win the prestigious National Book Award. Glass describes herself as a person who did everything late. In her 2002 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, she dedicated it to “everybody who blooms late in life, whether you’re a writer or anything else, because you never, never know.”
A novel with the breadth of Three Junes doesn’t spontaneously generate, however. Glass’s writing—and happy success—were the culmination of a lifetime of reading, along with attending a private high school that was a “hothouse” for creative writing (schoolmates included Susan Minot and Ruth Ozeki). In high school she wrote and was on the editorial team of school publications, but when she got to Yale, in the ’70s, she found herself disillusioned by the vogue in English departments for deconstructionism and was more challenged by drawing and painting. She graduated from Yale with an art degree. Intending to be a painter, she studied art abroad and tried to establish herself as a painter when she returned.
She lived in New York, where she supported herself as a journalist and copy editor. We might guess at the editing background from the cleanness and precision of her prose and metaphors. Here’s the retired librarian protagonist of The Widower’s Tale, 70-year-old Percy Darling, reflecting on the memory of his wife’s death after an inebriated dinner party 30 years earlier:
After all those years, it stands to reason that all these parties, in my memory, would have blurred together—or vanished, like our faces in the kitchen window that evening. Yet many of them remain distinct, preciously so, when I set aside time to remember. They are like the cards in an old-fashioned library catalog. Many are brittle and yellowed, darkened at the edges, typed imperfectly, even altered by hand, but there they are to flip through at will. The one turned to most often would be the last.
Glass turned from painting to serious writing in her thirties. She never considered going back to school for an MFA, preferring to “go it alone.” For seven years she worked on short stories before beginning to publish. She describes those early stories as long and complicated, “yearning to become novels.” Then her first son was born, and she understood that short stories weren’t going to support him. “Having a child was like getting a kick in the backside from reality,” she says. “I needed to support this other person, make a real living, be a ‘grown-up.’ I was also writing nonfiction for magazines, but I did not want to give up the fiction. I understood that the only way to make it viable was to undertake a novel.” There were more years of work on the novel. Glass sent the completed manuscript to agent Gail Hochman, who enthusiastically agreed to represent her.
Critical approval for Three Junes came quickly, even though its author was more or less unknown. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, reviewer Laura Ciolkowski remarked on the “beautifully wrought narrative” of Scottish family patriarch and newspaper publisher Paul McLeod. The story of Paul’s trip to Greece in 1989, after the death of his wife Maureen, is the first June of the novel and the first panel of what Ciolkowski called an “intimate literary tryptich.” The reader learns the history of Paul’s marriage to the frank and imperfect Maureen and meets Fern Olitsky, a young art student who is also touring Greece. Fern awakens Paul’s interest and his desire, and then reappears much later in the third part of the book, cast as an impromptu friend and kindred spirit to Fenno, Paul’s oldest son. New York Times reviewer Katherine Wolff wrote that Glass “refurbishes the traditional plot-driven novel.”
“Plot-driven” may be an overstatement. Three Junes is plotted in the sense that characters and lives overlap and affect one another, but the three-part structure of the book, the multiple points of view—a hallmark of Glass’s books—and the observant depictions of family skirmishes and arbitrations all work somewhat counter to momentum. It’s not a book that prods readers to turn the page; it’s a book that asks readers to think about the page they’re on, the characters they’re with.
The engine of Glass’s work is character more than event—though The Widower’s Tale is more closely plotted than the other books. It’s the characters’ engagement with their lives and the concomitant depth of the characters that propel the reader forward. These two attributes—reverence for life and a deep knowledge of human beings—are, I suspect, more likely to be the marks of a mature writer. In a 2011 interview with Nichole Bernier for Beyond the Margins, Glass spoke about how the 1980s introduced a phenomenon of the precocious young writer. At that time, Glass was still a painter, but she noticed: “What disturbed me was the sudden widespread notion that if you hadn’t published a noteworthy book by the time you were 30, your hopes of ever doing so suddenly looked dim,” she told Bernier in the interview. “Since when are writers comparable to ballplayers? Generally speaking, the older we get, the better we are.”
What Glass was unquestionably good at in that first novel was the creation of characters so fully drawn, so engaged with their lives, that they couldn’t help but win readers’ sympathy. In Three Junes the show is stolen by the gay expatriate Scotsman Fenno McLeod and Fenno’s friend Malachy Burns, a gay New York music critic with AIDS who wins Fenno’s friendship (contrary to what Fenno’s family assumes, the two are never lovers) and tacitly appoints him as caregiver for his remaining days. Fenno’s voice dominates the central part of the tryptich, which is the bulk of the novel; and he reappears in Glass’s second novel, The Whole World Over, which features a similarly large cast of characters.
In The Widower’s Tale, the primary narrative voice is that of Percival (Percy) Darling, a 70-year-old with two grown daughters and several grandchildren. Percy’s character was the starting point for this expansive book. Glass explained in a 2010 keynote for the National Book Festival that the idea for Percy was born when she returned to live in her childhood town in Massachusetts after many years and found she didn’t like what it had morphed into while she’d been away. Out of her annoyance at what she thought were unfortunate changes in the town, the character of Percy Darling emerged, “a fossilized old-timer, a man who can no longer tolerate how fast the world is changing around him.” It was the seed of a novel. “Every story I create begins with a single character,” she said in that same speech. “If you, the reader, can’t fully enter the mind and soul of my protagonists—you don’t have to like them necessarily; at least, not to begin with—you’re not going to like my books.”
With “curmudgeonly” Percy at the center, The Widower’s Tale is about how change plays out in people’s lives, but it reprises many elements familiar to readers of Glass’s first three books. Again, there are multiple perspectives. Percy’s first-person voice is primary, but we also enter the minds of others: Percy’s grandson, Robert; a Guatemalan landscaping worker, Celestino; and a young gay man, Ira, who is hired as a teacher at the preschool that Percy, at the novel’s start, allows to be housed on his property in a converted barn. Glass also wanted to tell part of the tale from the viewpoint of Percy’s oncologist daughter. But, she says, she realized the story was “meant to be told only through the eyes of the men.” Another echo of Glass’s previous fiction is the unexpected attraction between an older man (Percy) and a younger, artistic woman (Sarah, a glassmaker); it reminds us of Paul McLeod and Fern, from Three Junes. And there is the fact that the story is not bound by heterosexual norms: Ira, the preschool teacher, is fired from one job because of a parent’s homophobia, and he fears for the loss of his new job. His companion Anthony wants to marry, but Ira is afraid, both of the commitment to Anthony and of losing another job if his sexual preference becomes public.
As with all Glass’s work so far, family is the solid core of The Widower’s Tale. Percy’s two grown daughters have had radically different adulthoods. This theme of poles-apart sisters is one Glass also explored in her third book, the group of linked stories I See You Everywhere. In The Widower’s Tale, the theme is a small part of a much larger narrative construction. Trudy, the oncologist, is passionate about her work treating breast cancer patients (Glass is a breast cancer survivor, and she knows this terrain). Clover is pretty and winsome but lacks stability, and at 45 has boomeranged home again to work at the nearby preschool and to try to win back the two children she lost in her divorce.
About her interest in family as a cornerstone for her work, Glass says, “We are all born into one [family] and most of us do our damnedest to form one.” This latest novel follows the disruption and reformation of a lot of families. I counted at least eight that were rebuilt or rearranged in The Widower’s Tale; you could throw in romantic relationships that appear to be heading toward marriage and make it an even ten. There’s adoption and pseudo-adoption, widowhood, divorce, remarriage, and marriage contemplated. There’s marriage strictly for practical reasons, divorce predicated on a glaring lie. Yet the novel doesn’t feel at all like an explication of relationships, and stakes are not small. The plot leads steadily and naturally to a catastrophic climax that is life-altering for Percy, Robert, and a number of the other characters.
And the Dark Sacred Night, Glass’s new novel, will appear in April, 2014. The story is spun from a minor subplot of Three Junes. Not surprisingly, the new book is also about family. Readers can anticipate that some familiar characters will reappear—and also that the story will be as complicated as real life.
Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time associate editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her blog Big Strange House. You can follow her on Twitter at @evelynsomers13.