A pretty postcard of a novel verges on cliche

"The Widower's Tale," by Julia Glass. Pantheon, $26.95.

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If you've ever been suspicious about the charm of one of those pretty-as-a-postcard towns with their gardening guilds and century-home tours, author Julia Glass is with you.

In "The Widower's Tale," the National Book Award winner ("The Three Junes") peeks beneath the surface of Matlock, Mass., a town so perfectly rendered that anyone who has spent time in Boston and environs will feel a frisson of recognition. As America goes, this is a place with old architecture and Mayflower pedigrees.

But Ms. Glass also recognizes the modern challenges elbowing their way past the pocket doors, and this is the stuff of her long and intricately woven tale.

Percival Darling, retired Harvard librarian, is the widower whose tale anchors the novel. Bright and amusing, charming and spry, Percy lives in an historic house on a nice piece of land with an old barn he has recently given over to the Elves and Fairies nursery school.

This decision brings into his life a host of new characters, including Sarah Straight, single mom, glass artist and, surprisingly enough for Percy, a love interest who almost immediately becomes a complication when health issues arise.

Ms. Glass makes Percy her only first-person narrator but not her only focus. Ira is a dedicated teacher at Elves and Fairies, a gay man whose committed relationship with live-in boyfriend Anthony provides a lens through which the novelist considers a number of contemporary issues, including gay marriage.

Celestino and Arturo, young men who connect through Percy's grandson, Robert, give Ms. Glass a chance to consider issues of class that confound the immigrant experience.

She brings real storytelling enthusiasm to her novel. Her affection for her characters shows, and she writes scenes that feel lived-in and familiar. And still, this book of more than 400 pages flags more than it should, in part because it has more scenes than story.

Too many of her well-observed and charmingly relayed scenes fail to impart a sense of momentum to the novel. Though the characters face real-world problems, the drama feels slack. I began to find irony in the fact that Ms. Glass chose the name Matlock for her town, because the sensibility of the book sort of echoes that of the 1980s-era TV series starring Andy Griffith, in which a veneer of safety and light always kept the crime and mystery from becoming too acute.

There's an old-fashioned quality to "The Widower's Tale" that emanates in part from Percy's mannered, pseudo-formal voice. Consider his response after seeing himself made a subject of the gossip columnist in the town rag:

"There are those who wouldn't give a freight train's hoot to see themselves trotted out in the Cheez Wiz prose of a local bigmouth like Mandy Pinkerton. ... And God knows, some poor souls probably relish such attention. Not (as you can guess) I."

Well, OK, that's a choice Ms. Glass has made for bookworm Percy, and I'll buy it. I'll enjoy it, even if I don't quite believe it.

But when grandson Robert declares Percy's younger girlfriend -- and other things -- "way cool," I find myself stopping to wonder, "Does anyone SAY that anymore? Do hip college kids say that?" Not the ones I know.

Then, too, there's the problem of viewpoint and cliche. Ira and his boyfriend are a bit too predictable a gay couple -- charming, quick-witted, more loving than the average married straight couple and big fans of yuppie cuisine.

Ms. Glass seems to have chosen characters and their conflicts with a kind of liberal-issues checklist in hand. Gay rights? Check! Health-insurance insanity? Economic disparity? Check! Eco-terrorism? Check!

Discerning readers of any political persuasion might find this tiresome after a stretch.

The novel's flaws were, for me, more than nits to pick. Too often they swept me out of the story or tested my patience. More than anything, I wished "The Widower's Tale" really had been just the widower's tale, for I liked Percy's company and his problems better than the rest.

Still, Julia Glass has written an entertaining book. It stands up under a leisurely gaze and offers some poignant moments and light amusement. Oddly enough, it is to contemporary fiction what the picture-postcard town is to American life: pleasurable and pretty, if not as authentic as we'd like to believe.

Karen Sandstrom is a writer and illustrator in Cleveland.


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