Portrait of a Life: Nora Webster

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I kind of love books about nothing. Not nothing like Seinfeld nothing. More like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn nothing. I love the kinds of stories that follow a family or a town over a period of time and just kind of report out matter-of-factly on what’s going on. Each incident alone may not be particularly interesting but taken as a whole, they become a portrait of a life or lives lived.

Such is the case with Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster. Arguably the defining moment, the death of Nora’s husband Maurice, has already happened by the time we get to reading, but Maurice’s death colours and informs everything that happens in the book.

nora webster

Maurice’s death leaves Nora Webster a young widow in a small Irish town with four children to look after in the late 1960s. Two of the children, Fiona and Aine are already living from home, pursuing their teachers’ certification and it’s just the younger boys, Conor and Donal that are at home and need her direct care still. Early in the book, Nora makes the decision to sell their vacation home in beach side town to have a little extra money to live on until she can figure out what a young widow can do. The widow’s pension is a lot smaller than anyone thought it would be and she has a household to run.

We follow Nora and her family as she tries to put the pieces of their lives back together with the help of the community they live in, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Nora comes to grips with the idea that she may have to go back to work at the office where she worked before her marriage, at the mercy of Francie Kavanagh, who she worked with before and didn’t like. Nora worries constantly about her children: Aine who seems to get more politically active as the novel goes on; Fiona who never seems to share anything personal with her mother but has a good rapport with Nora’s sister; Conor who seems to worry constantly about money; and Donal who spent the most time with his father, a teacher, and is at a loose end now that all his school days remind him of the man who isn’t here any longer.

As time passes, Nora becomes more used to the idea that she can be who she wants to be and do what she wants to do, that there isn’t anyone around to stop her. The 1960s are a time of great change, even in a small town in Ireland and she starts dying her hair, buying new clothes, and even attempts to paint over wallpaper herself. When she rediscovers music and how much she loves it, she finally finds something that is just for herself.

I’m not sure if Mr. Toibin would take this as a compliment, but reading Nora Webster reminded me very much of a Maeve Binchy book. Like those novels, Nora Webster is about something bad happening and making the most of it with a little hard work and the right attitude. Nora Webster was maybe more introspective but it had a lot of the same elements: a community only too willing to help share the burdens; problematic relatives and long held grudges; elements of the Church that are both good and not so good; and the idea that any situation can be remedied with some hard work and a good attitude.

I basically read this book in one sitting – it was completely absorbing and uplifting despite the serious subject matter. Toibin made me care about all the characters and what happens to them – even Nora’s sisters who were basically the least nice ever. This was the first of Toibin’s work that I’ve read but if his other stuff is like this, then I’m definitely looking out for more of it.

15 thoughts on “Portrait of a Life: Nora Webster

  1. I love books about nothing, too! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Glaciers, and most recently, Department of Speculation. I haven’t read anything by Colm Toibin but this sounds like something I would love!

    • I think I need to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It was such a perfect book. Did you know that it was one of the books given to US military during WWII? Pride and Prejudice was the choice for British officers during the Great War.

      Don’t know why I felt the need to mention that!

      • You’re not going to believe this, but I did know that…and I just learned it yesterday! Haha! How funny is it that you mentioned it?! I just finished reading a book about Fitzgerald and the writing of The Great Gatsby (called So We Read On) and the author mentions a few titles that were sent to soldiers – A Tree Grows being one of them! There are 1,322 titles that were used and they were called Armed Services Editions (ASEs). It also marks the beginning of paperback editions!

  2. I thought this book sounded like one I might like when I first read about it, and now I am quite sure that I would. I have heard a lot of good things about his books, but have never read anything by him. I will have to change that!

  3. I just finished reading this too and have read a few of his books, this is one of the more accessible, along with Brooklyn and this one took him a while to finish as it was very personal to his own experience.

    I was amazed by many of the comments I received on my review by readers who could relate to Nora Webster, many of them referring to their own upbringing or mothers, and the attitude of 1960’s Ireland society to keep everything bottled up.

    Nora Webster is a real thinker, but rarely speaks her mind and constantly worries about what other people will think of her and tries to behave accordingly, well, in the beginning, as she overcomes her grief she starts doing things that she thinks might shock people and sometimes they do indeed. A brilliant character study of Irish Catholic life for women of the time.

    You might enjoy this short video from The Guardian, with the author talking about writing this book:

    Colm Tóibín on how the loss of his father informed his most personal novel, Nora Webster.

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