Nora Webster, a new novel by Colm Toibin, doesn’t seem to follow the rules for novels. But, as the NY Times Book Review notes, this is a “deceptively quiet drama” that drew me in and forced me to keep reading to the end. In my recent reincarnation as a budding novelist, I have found myself analyzing other novels to see if they follow the path set by strict constructionists like K.M. Weiland and Larry Brooks.
If, at the surface, this novel is just “about” the life of a 40-something woman living in Ireland in the 1960’s going through the first years after the death of her husband, and not about some heroic journey or struggle, why did I like it so much and why did it keep me reading?
1. Nora Webster (the character) is appealing. I sympathized with her plight and wondered how I would respond to the death of a spouse. After the funeral, she must deal with nosy neighbors who come unannounced to offer sympathy but really to have someone to gossip about.
Nora also must deal with friends and relatives (including her own children), who want to give her advice or criticize her decisions. Nora seems to be suggestible, making decisions without much thought. She is convinced by relatives to sell the family’s summer home. Although initially, she doesn’t sound convinced, she makes an instant decision when she visits the home and realizes it will provide her with much-needed income.
Nora is also dealing with the memory of her husband, who, she admits, was liked by everyone. Her family liked him more than her, and she must figure out new relationships with these people.
The NY Times book reviewer called her “icy” and says she is “distant and sealed off,” even with her children. This writer obviously has never had a spouse or loved one die. I felt she was in shock and dealing with her grief, which left little room for her children.
Nora is forced to take a job after she had loved being at home and married. Her job situation sounded pretty awful, and she again gets swept along in events without much thought. I thought a number of times as I was reading this about the advice often given to the bereaved, “Don’t make any big decisions for a year after a loss.”
Nora’s story ends three years later when she seems finally to be coming out into the light after the darkness of her grief.
2. Nora’s story is interesting
Ever since I read Larry Brooks’ books (Story Engineering and Story Physics), I’ve tried to analyze novels for their structure. Every novel focused on a main character should have some kind of “hero’s journey,” either external or internal. In an internal struggle situation such as this book, the character should show progress toward some kind of realization.
Nora’s struggle is quieter, as she tries to move forward day by day, dealing with family situations and work situations and financial situations. Her struggle did keep me reading, to find out what was going to happen to her and whether she was going to get her life together and become independent, if not entirely happy.
A novel should also have high points, “pivot points” as Larry Brooks calls them, at defined points throughout the novel. In the case of Nora Roberts (the character) the high points are not readily apparent. So I looked at the book and tried to find the 1st pivot point (at 25%) and the midpoint (at 50%) to see if the story structure was apparent.
The 1st pivot point comes as Nora and her sons visit her sister and her family. Nora asserts her independence by not going on the family outing and increasing the heat in the fireplace. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a victory of sorts for Nora, who never has been assertive.
At the midpoint, Nora goes to a meeting of workers and votes for a union, without consulting anyone or thinking it over. It seems she is again asserting herself, making her own decisions, when in the past she would have asked the opinion of her husband and others. This decision ends up with some serious repercussions for Nora, as her employers find out about the union and are very upset.
As I said, there’s nothing terribly mysterious or suspenseful in this story. No dramatic ending, either. It’s just the quiet story of a woman. I think that’s why the author chose the name of the book, and why he refrained from another title.
So, can a quiet book that doesn’t have any particular drama make readers want to keep reading? Yes. Even though I recognized that Nora Webster wasn’t going to be plot driven, I was drawn into Nora’s life and wanted to know that she would survive, become stronger, and make a better life for herself.
Sometimes the exception is just an exception.
Read my Goodreads review of Nora Webster.