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Old 01-08-2017, 05:32 PM   #1
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Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

From one of contemporary literature's most acclaimed and beloved authors comes this magnificent new novel set in a small town in Ireland in the 1960s, where a fiercely compelling, too-young widow and mother of four moves from grief, fear, and longing to unexpected discovery. Tóibín's portrayal of the intricacy and drama of ordinary lives brings to mind of the work of Alice Munro.

This is the MR Literary Club selection for January 2017. Whether you've already read it or would like to, feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time, and guests are always welcome! So, what are your thoughts on it?


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Old 01-10-2017, 09:20 AM   #2
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I've started on it in audio. I'm about a tenth of the way through and enjoying it, and the narration by Auntie Petunia Fiona Shaw is excellent.
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Old 01-10-2017, 10:34 AM   #3
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the narration by Auntie Petunia Fiona Shaw is excellent.


I just started this morning and am only on the first chapter. However what I notice is how much empathy is immediately created between the reader and Nora. Hard to put into exact words. You don't feel like you have to get to know her first and build up a relationship.
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Old 01-11-2017, 01:26 PM   #4
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I have read two chapters now, and I like the writing very much. I think it will generate an interesting discussion. I found this excellent article about his writing process. The article even mentions Mann's Buddenbrooks which the book club has also read. The last paragraph has a possible mini-spoiler so you may want to save this article for later.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/20...e-nora-webster

The article subtitle is "The novelist on thinking about the book every day for a decade and how listening to Beethoven helped him capture a widow's loss."

Here are the introductory paragraphs:
Quote:
I wrote the first chapter of my novel Nora Webster in the spring of 2000, in the same season as I wrote the first chapter of The Master, my novel about Henry James. Both books dealt with a protagonist over four or five years. Alone in the world, both James and Nora Webster attempted to find a way out of failure or grief or loss. Although The Master required a great deal of research and Nora Webster almost none, I found The Master easier to work on, and easier to finish.

In Nora Webster, I was dealing with memory. The novel is set in Enniscorthy, in the south-east of Ireland, where I am from. Nora's husband Maurice died in the same year as my father died. Maurice barely appears in the novel, but his loss lies between the words; he is there as a palpable absence. Our house and the streets of the town and the coast nearby operate in the novel almost as characters. I did not have to do any research to establish them. It was their resonance, their emotional contours, that interested me. I found as I worked that putting in the real name of a street, or the real configuration of a room, allowed me to release some set of coiled or contained emotions that would then anchor some scenes or passages of the book.

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Old 01-11-2017, 10:07 PM   #5
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Interesting find, Bookworm_Girl (I've only read the two quoted paragraphs so far... will wait until I finish the book to read the rest).

I'm also really enjoying the writing and am pulled into the story. I've made it to chapter 7 so far. As far as empathy, I agree, though at first I was worried that Nora might be too saintly which, though there are people like that, can be irksome for me to read about as the character becomes flatter. However, I am seeing more character from her as the chapters go on. I like the chapter divisions so far as well, as each seems to basically be Nora interacting with someone from her life that we haven't met yet and thus slowly expanding our view of her world. In a lesser writer this simple realism could be boring but Tóibín is making it very interesting and engaging.
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Old 01-12-2017, 06:15 AM   #6
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Thanks from me too Bookworm_Girl: I'll save it until I have finished the book. At the moment I have read three chapters. I think Tóibín's pared-back style conveys Nora's sense of grief far better than elaborate descriptions would do. The end of Chapter One stopped me in my tracks:

Quote:
In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.
Oh, the desolation of those simple sentences.
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Old 01-13-2017, 01:57 PM   #7
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I have reserved it from BorrowBox and should have it on loan by Jan. 22nd.
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Old 01-13-2017, 08:20 PM   #8
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I have reserved it from BorrowBox and should have it on loan by Jan. 22nd.
Happy New Year, fantasy fan! It's a quick read so you won't be too far behind. I'm looking forward to your analysis.
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Old 01-13-2017, 08:52 PM   #9
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I have reserved it from BorrowBox and should have it on loan by Jan. 22nd.
I too look forward to your comments fantasyfan. It will be great to have the Irish perspective.
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Old 01-14-2017, 06:23 PM   #10
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I have reserved it from BorrowBox and should have it on loan by Jan. 22nd.
I'll be looking forward to what you think of it. I'm enjoying it immensely.

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Happy New Year, fantasy fan! It's a quick read so you won't be too far behind. I'm looking forward to your analysis.
Have you already finished? I'm on chapter 14.
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Old 01-14-2017, 06:38 PM   #11
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I'm on Chapter 9. Nora's character is warming up and slowly awakening from her grief to the people around her and becoming more assertive too.
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Old 01-15-2017, 11:23 AM   #12
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There's an essential similarity between this and Tóibín's Brooklyn, which story was referenced early on. Both deal with the interior lives of flat, affectless, passive women, but I thought Brooklyn superior.

I think my reaction suffered from having listened to it. It was harder to appreciate the prose as I was distracted by what I thought was Fiona Shaw's overacting the voices. I was reminded of a criticism I read long ago of Huston's marvelous last film, The Dead; the critic said that the lively and engaged characters belied the notion of the dead of Joyce's title. I think he was right; it was still a great movie, but a different story from Joyce's.

I'm not one who cares about to what extent characters are likeable or I can warm to them, but that said, I was irritated not by Nora in her grief, but by the devices in the storyline. Her passivity was understandable, but unlike Eilis in Brooklyn, there were no negative consequences for Nora. Everything went her way. She needed to sell the beach cottage? A buyer walked in the door. She needed a job, with 20-year old qualifications? Ditto. When she disliked said job? She got to work half-time and avoid the manager she detested. The private room at no charge on holiday, the free singing lessons, everyone in town, it seemed, falling over themselves to help her - it got tiresome. Her only setback was the botched audition.

Poor Donal, of course was another story as he suffered lasting damage; Nora's inability to exert herself to help him was unsettling, even as she was able to act for Conor. Her abandonment of the boys as their father was dying was chilling; if I were going to dislike Nora, that in itself would have provided the justification.

So while the prose is beautiful, the technique of using random incidents suits the exploration of grief, and Ireland circa 1970 is effectively and economically invoked, I found the story itself largely hollow and I reacted inappropriately. Nora was damned lucky, I thought.
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Old 01-16-2017, 12:05 AM   #13
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Hello issybird - lovely to see you!

I can see how listening to an audio book could in a way get between the listener and the author's voice because it has to be that actor's interpretation of the words, rather than yours or mine or any other reader's.

I didn't mind the way things worked out for Nora. I suspect that in a town where everyone knew what had happened, there would be a lot of people wanting to help her. I did find her awkwardness with dealing with her children sad but believable.

She was in a terrible situation when Maurice was dying and desperate to have her with him. Of course the boys needed her too - she was between a rock and a hard place. I do agree that she didn't exert herself to help Donal, even though she thought she was doing the right thing in letting him be in the hope that his distress, shown by his stammer, would lessen. I suspect that most parents live with regret for things they did or didn't do for their children.

I did love the way she responded to music and found it so healing:

Quote:
It was only after a month, when she had had four or five lessons, that she realised that the music was leading her away from Maurice ... she was alone with herself in a place where he would never have followed her, even in death.
It seems that she had never had any music in her life, partly because of her antagonism towards her mother, who was a singer, and partly because it was of no interest to Maurice. When listening to the exquisite "Song to the Moon" by Dvorak:

Quote:
What she felt now more than anything was a sadness that she had lived her life until now without having heard this.
That same aria was referred to in Bel Canto for those who read that book. It's well worth listening to if any of you don't know it.

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Old 01-16-2017, 02:03 AM   #14
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Here's the fabulous Renee Fleming singing it, as long as the link works:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHM3zMBQxTQ
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Old 01-18-2017, 06:50 AM   #15
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Hi, .Bookpossum! Thanks for the link; gorgeous!

I did think that people could have talked stupid her. But ultimately, it was just too much for me; it strained my credulity. The one group who didn't seem to want to bello her was her husband's former colleagues. Then, it was their livelihood and it was in their best interest not to cross the brother (and what motivated him? Posthumous revenge for some issue with Maurice?). But a widow's curse? Got something of an eyeroll from me.

And Maurice, one of the many imponderables. Everyone loved him, it seems, and his character was stainless, but also very controlling (but probably not atypically do for that time and place).

I did appreciate the randomness of incident and how the characters were ultimately unknowable,. So it is as we all negotiate our lives.
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