Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster
by Colm Toibin
384 pages
Published 2014 by Scribner

Publisher's Summary: 
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s magnificent seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable, and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be sucked back into it. Wounded, selfish, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning insight and empathy, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.

My Thoughts: 
I picked this book to read in March because of it being Irish and Toibin having written one of my club's favorites, Brooklyn. Like Brooklyn, Toibin is again writing the story of a female and doing an admirable job of it. Unlike Brooklyn (a novel Toibin wrote and published after he'd started this one and set it aside), this one was not a hit with the club, in no small part because it was hard to get emotionally attached to Nora, a character with whom a group of women of a certain age should have been able to relate. 

It's a quiet, slow novel and Nora is not a particularly likable character. We first meet her not long after her beloved husband has died, leaving Nora with four children to raise and no idea how she will make ends meet. Other writers might have chosen to make Nora a sympathy character, one who holds her children close, relies on the kindness of others, and allows us to see her pain. Nora is not that character. 

When we first meet her, Nora is tired of people stopping by to express their condolences for her loss, some people who have never before come to the house. She understands they mean well, but Nora is a person who wants to keep her life and her loss private in a small town where everyone has known everyone else all of their lives. She struggles accepting their sympathy and their offers of kindness. 

She struggles even more dealing with her children's emotional needs but we soon learn that parenting is not necessarily something that Nora has ever excelled at. 
"It was strange, she thought, that she had never before put a single thought into whether or not they [her children] were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking."
Nora is vastly more likely to opt to do nothing, to say nothing, then to try to figure out what her children are thinking or feeling. As a mother, I found that hard to imagine and it made it harder to feel for a person who seemed so cold. 

At the time my book club met to discuss the book, I was freshly finished reading it. I was hard pressed to explain what the book was even about. But in the week since I've finished it, it has grown on me. Nora is a woman who never seemed to feel love until she met Maurice and now she's not sure how to go on without him. But she was also overshadowed by Maurice - everyone knew and loved him. Without him she's not sure what opinions she should have about things. And she struggles with how to move on. 
"So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing."

Being left in such a hard position begins to make Nora tougher and helps her find her voice. One evening, watching television with Maurice's brother, Nora finds herself able to contradict him about a political matter. 

"Jim tapped the arm of the chair with the index finger of his right hand and whistled under his breath. He was not sued to women disagreeing with him, and she smiled at the thought that he might, if he was to continue visiting her house, have to learn to tolerate it." 
Gradually Nora begins to find herself, a person, I think, she has never really known, even as she learns to appreciate what others are willing to do for her. Nora begins (not without still worrying what others will think) to color her hair, buy new clothes, find her own pastimes, and redecorate her home. And slowly, she lets go of Maurice. 

After that week of thinking about the book, I can say that I appreciated it a lot more. Still, I'm not sure that I would say that I really liked it. 

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