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Life, love and letters

A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR

By John Irving

Random House, $27.95

Reviewed by DORMAN T. SHINDLER

John Irving's latest novel is a page-turning romantic comedy about the way we deal with grief and the loss of loved ones. It is also about the writing process itself. Not since The World According to Garp, in fact, has John Irving broached the subject of life versus fiction so forcefully.

Told in three parts (or windows, A Widow for One Year follows the literary and emotional development of Ruth Cole. The story begins in 1958, when Ruth is only 4, and her parents, Ted and Marion Cole, are separated.

The Coles are the epitome of a rich, dysfunctional family. Their marriage, which was never a solid one, has fallen apart following the deaths of two teenage sons five years before. Ted, an internationally renowned writer and illustrator of children's books, is a philanderer whose excessive drinking has resulted in a suspended driver's license. To get around for the summer, he hires Eddie O'Hare, a college student, to be his driver.

Eddie is set up with his own room in the main house, where he falls head over heels in love with Marion Cole _ who instigates an affair. For her, it is a way to briefly escape her unshakable grief.

These events and a series of others (involving Ted and his penchant for seducing his models) lead to Marion's departure from her husband and daughter's life. She literally disappears from their lives.

The second "window" in Ruth's life opens upon the year 1990. At 36, Ruth has already become a successful, best-selling author. She is also strong minded, prone to relationships with the wrong kind of man and incapable of suffering fools: what some men term a "difficult" woman. This second portion of the novel details her further development as a novelist (while verbally jousting with insistent fans and overbearing journalists and students) and her seeming inability to ever truly love anyone.

The third window shows how (through a seemingly random series of events triggered by something she does while working on a new novel) Ruth Cole falls in love for the first time _ at the tender age of 41.

Plot-wise, this is Irving's most lean novel since The Hotel New Hampshire. Which is not to say it is dull. As with any Irving book there is, of course, much more: the seduction of Ruth's best friend (Hannah Grant) by her father; a date rape; a sub-plot involving a murder in Amsterdam; a Dutch policeman in search of a witness; and the appearance of the mysterious Alice Somerset.

But the thematic heart of the novel falls upon the act of creative writing, and the notion that art often mirrors life. Ruth Cole writes novels that sound suspiciously similar to Irving's: The Same Orphanage and The Fall of Saigon sound like alternate titles for The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. She publishes part of a novel in Suddeutsche Zeitung, the same newspaper in which Irving published a chapter of this book. And when Ruth decides to read from her new novel (about a recent widow who is also a writer), Irving notes, "It was the first time that Ruth had written about a writer, she was letting herself in for more autobiographical interpretations, of the very kind she loathed."

To further confuse things, Irving makes nearly everyone a writer: In addition to Ruth and Ted Cole, we have Eddie Harris (who shares Irving's birth date and writes autobiographical novels about younger men and older women) and Hannah Grant.

One can almost see Irving, the omniscient writer, sitting back and smiling with glee, picturing his critics and readers trying to locate all the seemingly autobiographical clues as he purposely misleads them to see if they will once again read too much into it all _ like a literary game of three-card monte. Perhaps he is hoping that once the game is revealed, everyone will sit back, relax and just enjoy the story.

Dorman T. Shindler is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City, Mo.

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