In his latest novel, Colm Toibin drops us into the bubbling anxieties of a recently widowed Irish woman with four children. Nora Webster is struggling with money worries, her boys’ school and psychological problems, her son’s stammer, his preoccupation with photography, and his brother’s antagonism, her daughters’ dating and political activism, and her ambivalence about her family and neighbors’ opinions of her. Community gossip, the ever-present lens of Catholicism, the political strife of unrest, and the deep grief of losing her husband are the beating heart of her tension, as she sells a summer cottage and reluctantly returns to a job she hated in the past. Gradually she allows herself some comfort and enjoyment in the guilty pleasure of listening to music and singing.
Talk about a “rich interior life,” this woman monitors her every thought and impulse. She examines her notion of what others – people she has known her whole life- will think about everything she and her children do or plan to do. At the same time, she is defiant and dismissive of their reactions. Toibin seeds the story with a keen sense of time and place and is adept at the subtle ways people slant their words to make themselves known.