Tag Archives: grief

Two Wondering Widowers: The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

Two more to add to my growing list of novels and memoirs about widows and widowers. The memoirs are heartbreakingly poignant, but the novels make me wonder about the death of a spouse being such a frequent starting point for fiction.

The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick are two novels about men reflecting on their marriages after their wives have died first, written by women and marketed to primarily female audiences.

Is it a comforting thought to underappreciated wives that a husband — after years of comfortable familiarity and little introspection or reflection on his married state — might be confronted by something after his wife’s death that causes him to suffer months of anguish over whether his wife was really who she thought she was? Is it an imaginative response to the women’s-magazine dictum to keep a little mystery in your marriage?

cover image of The Third Wife hardcover

The Third Wife
by Lisa Jewell

Adrian is a grieving husband. His marriage to Maya, his third wife, was short and ended abruptly with her death. He has two ex-wives and children from two previous marriages, who all get along well and got along well with Maya. Everyone was one big happy family; but now Maya is dead and Adrian is alone, and there is something mysterious about Maya’s death. Why was she where she was and was it really an accident or was it suicide?

This family drama has flashbacks and gives readers points of view of many of the different family members. The story carried me along and the characters, all with various baggage, had clear personalities and individualized middle- to upper-middle-class problems. There were flashes of humor in the writing, but not as much as you find in Liane Moriarty’s novels or in the authors who have blurbs on the back cover of The Third Wife: JoJo Moyes, Sophie Kinsella, and Anna Maxted.

In the end, though, I may have just read too many family dramas in a row, or I’m too impatient with the format of the slow reveal of the mystery as the characters work it out when the author has made it clear to the reader that she knows the whole story and is just not telling. Or maybe I just couldn’t get over Maya’s death at such a young age, despite all the healing of old wounds it brought about.

The Third Wife was a good read and could spark a good book club discussion, but the family dramas by authors like Joanna Trollope (The Other Family) and Anne Tyler (The Beginner’s Goodbye) go deeper.

The Third Wife
Jewell, Lisa
Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Feb. 2016
320 pp.

cover image of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
by Phaedra Patrick

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick comes out in May, and is likely to appeal to readers who liked the quirkiness of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. (Even the titles sound alike, don’t they?) Again, these books go deeper into the vagaries of the human heart, but The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper does have its charm. (You knew I was going to do that.)

It’s about a 69-year-old widower who finds a charm bracelet belonging to his wife that he had never seen before in all their years of marriage and goes on an unlikely quest to discover the story behind each charm…

Each story is more farfetched than the last, but the author presents with wry English humor, Arthur’s reactions and observations about his neighbors, his adult children, and the people he meets along the way. and pulls off this bittersweet tale of a cautious Englishman throwing off his quiet, suburban routine to follow the mysterious trail that the charm bracelet leads him on.

If you liked The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye but wouldn’t mind something a little lighter, give this first novel by short story writer Phaedra Patrick a try.

Check out the book trailer!

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Patrick, Phaedra
Mira (Harlequin)
May 2016
$24.99, U.S.


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

cover image of hardcoverWhen A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman showed up on a bunch of book bloggers’ favorites of 2014, I had happened to have brought it home on the recommendation of a library borrower who had brought it back and said how much she liked it, although it wasn’t her usual kind of book.

I read the whole book hearing “Ove” as rhyming with “love”, because that’s what the reader who recommended it so highly told me, but apparently this Nordic name is pronounced “Oo-veh.” That’s the only thing she misled me about, though, because this novel charmed me, just as it did her.  Author Fredrik Backman, a blogger and humor columnist in his early thirties, has written a story of a grieving widower named Ove forced into early retirement – at a loss for what he’s supposed to do with his days now that his wife is gone. An international bestseller translated from the Swedish written with dry humor, A Man Called Ove made me laugh and cry and see the good in Ove, despite his uncanny ability to irritate people.

At loose ends, angry at the incompetence of his neighbors, and nothing to do except patrol the block to see who’s ignoring the parking restrictions or breaking the rule of no driving in the residential district, Ove – the most un-self-reflective person in his small town and probably in all of Sweden – is angry at the world. Especially at the people who go on blithely living in it. Who were always extremely annoying at the best of times. Without the love and stabilizing presence of his wife Sonja, Ove has had enough of life.

According to this Chatelaine Magazine article, Ove originally appeared as a popular character on the author’s blog. Ove reminded me an older, grieving, curmudgeonly, working-class version of Don Tillman from The Rosie Project, whose Asperger’s syndrome may have been undiagnosed but was perfectly clear to his friends and colleagues.

The author’s literary agency describes A Man Called Ove – the author’s first novel – as “a feel-good story in the spirit of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, and the film As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson.” Simon & Schuster describe it as “a feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It would make a great book club selection, but isn’t out in large print or audio CD yet for libraries to purchase.

A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman
July 2014
352 pp.
$25.00, US

Disclosure: Borrowed from the public library

Other opinions on A Man Called Ove (all excellent):
BermudaOnion’s Weblog
Bibliophile by the Sea
Book’d Out

Booking Mama

A Hard Life: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

cover imageAt the opening of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Hattie is a new mother in Philadelphia in 1925 – full of hope for her future life with her husband August and the future of their twin babies – before she experiences another tragic loss. Already grieving the recent death of her mother, who had brought Hattie and her sisters to Philadelphia to escape the South’s racist Jim Crow laws after their father was murdered with impunity by white men, Hattie withstands this new blow, essentially alone because her sisters have gone back to Georgia. Steeped in sorrow, Hattie stays in the North and raises her children – eleven in all. It’s a very hard life.

The second chapter jumps forward to 1948, which might bother readers who were expecting to settle into a sad (but ultimately uplifting) ongoing saga about a multi-generational family with a tough but loving mother. (That’s why I’m giving you this heads-up!) The novel is divided into ten separate stories – linked by their connection with Hattie – each story or vignette centering on one or a pair of Hattie’s adult children. The last one is about Hattie’s granddaughter Sala in 1980. Through the thoughts and memories of Hattie’s children, readers learn more about the central figure of Hattie throughout the novel, but each chapter is a full story on its own, encapsulating the siblings’ own scarred and difficult lives, coming out of an impoverished environment.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is frequently described in reader reviews as bleak, which may scare some off. The Oprah Book Club selection of the book may scare other readers off. Other readers don’t care for linked stories masquerading as a novel. None of those objections matter. You really must read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not put it off, like I did.

When I heard the author Ayana Mathis (Twelve Tribes of Hattie is her first novel.) speak in a panel discussion at last October’s Boston Book Festival along with novelists Kim McLarin and Paul Harding, I immediately added her book to my list of books to read. (The panel was Fiction: Out of Darkness. You can hear the archived audio of it and other events from that day here.) Asked about Hattie, her central character, suffering so much throughout her life, Ayana Mathis said she doesn’t think of the novel as sad or despairing, or Hattie as a hard mother, adding, “Although she loves her children, she raises them to be tough as tough.” She also said that although the novel is often cast as a story of the Great Migration (of African-Americans from southern states to cities in the northern part of the U.S.), she believes it speaks to universal human experience.

If you liked and admired Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (another book that is often described as “bleak”) because of the characters (not the Maine or the small-town setting), you will want to read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Mathis, Ayana
Knopf, 2012
256 pp.

Disclosure: I read this book as an Oprah 2.0 Book Club digital edition – downloaded through my public library’s Overdrive e-book lending service. The 2.0 edition came with significant passages disconcertingly already highlighted in yellow, but I got used to it!

Other Opinions (all excellent)
Big Book Lover
It’s a Book Thing
Love at First Book