Mandahla: How to Talk to a Widower Reviewed

Doug Parker is a widower at 29, stuck in suburbia with overwhelming grief and an equally-grieving 15-year-old stepson, Russ. Since his mother died, Russ has developed a habit of getting picked up by the cops for fighting and getting stoned. Doug prefers to self-medicate with booze:

"When the doorbell rang, I was sprawled out in my usual position on the couch, only half asleep but entirely drunk, torturing myself by tearing memories out of my mind at random like matches from a book, striking them one at a time and drowsily setting myself on fire."

Doug and Hailey had been married just under two years, and he was still getting used to being a husband instead of "a prowling dick in the city." Also new, but beginning to fit, was his role as a stepfather to a sullen teenager. Then his wife was killed in a plane crash. He hasn't disturbed anything in the house in the year since her death, and he's trapped in an "endless, pathetic spin cycle where all the dirty laundry goes around and around and nothing ever gets clean." His mantra: "I had a wife. Her name was Hailey. Now she's gone. And so am I."

He has two outlets for his grief. He battles rabbits on his lawn, none of whom he has managed to hit with anything. They dare him and mock him, "trash-talking with their beady rabbit eyes." He writes a magazine column, "How to Talk to a Widower," which has proved so popular that his agent is begging him to sign a book deal, which he refuses: "But it's been a year now, and my family and friends seem to think that's the shelf life on grief, like all you need is one round through all the seasons and then you're tapped like an empty keg, ready to start living again."

Doug has a fairly wacky family, including his pregnant twin sister, Claire, who's left her husband and moved in with Doug. His younger sister, Debbie, is getting married to a man she met while Doug was sitting shiva, which he resents deeply--if Hailey hadn't died, they would have never met. After moving in, Claire decides that if she can build a life in nine months, Doug's life can be rebuilt in the same amount of time, so she takes over his non-dating state with determination, and sets him up. Predictably, he has enough lousy first dates to merit a musical montage, "romantic lyrics laced with irony to convey the utter futility . . . the boredom, the wasted time . . . a song that ends in fading minor chords."

How Doug and Russ come to terms with Hailey's death and their sorrow and rage unfolds with humor and sadness in this marvelous novel, where grief is examined in its myriad forms. Doug is possessive about his mourning; he doesn't want sympathy, but doesn't want to seem O.K., because that would be a slight to Hailey; he resents being left alone, he resents being cared for; his pain seems to be the last link to his wife. Trips to the store become a "grueling obstacle course of pity and gross fascination, friends and neighbors all eager to squeeze my arm, or hug me." And, being young and bereaved, he finds that "everyone wants to buy the widower a lap dance."

Cover caveat: I picked up How to Talk to a Widower because Shelf reviewer Nick DiMartino is over the moon about Jonathan Tropper's The Book of Joe, and I trust Nick's enthusiasms. I almost put it down because the cover seems to promise a romantic comedy. There is romance, there is comedy, but a romantic comedy? No. A bittersweet story well told with depth and charm, yes.--Marilyn Dahl

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