It took me awhile to place Nora Webster in time. Irish readers may be quicker to identify its setting from some events, but I am not familiar enough with recent Irish history. Finally, I identified the novel as set in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It wasn’t long after gaining that knowledge that I began to wonder how autobiographical the novel is. Since then, I have read that it is indeed autobiographical, as details about Nora’s husband match those of Toíbín’s father.
Nora Webster is in her 40’s a recent widow. She is finding it difficult. Not only does she miss her husband Maurice, but she finds the attention paid to her as a widow painful. She feels comfortable only with a few people, those who stayed with her and Maurice during his painful death.
Making things more difficult is the fact that she is left with little money. One of the first things she is forced to do is sell the holiday cottage where the family stayed every summer. She finds it hard to return there, especially under those circumstances.
She also has her children to worry about, particularly her two young sons. Donal has begun stammering since his father’s death, and when her Aunt Josie comes to call, it is immediately clear to Nora that all did not go well when the boys stayed with Josie while their father was dying.
Soon Nora is forced to return to her old job at Gibney’s, where she has not worked since she married 20 years before. She must report to Mrs. Kavanaugh, a woman she disliked when they were girls at work there together and who bullies the office staff.
There are no big events in this novel, which is more of a character study. It is about grief and the act of making a new life after a major event.
Nora is an interesting character. She doesn’t say much of what she thinks, so is sometimes misunderstood. She does not listen to other people’s opinions of who she should like or what she should do. She is intensely private and does not discuss things with her family, even things that she should perhaps discuss. She is also fiercely protective of her family.
This is a quiet, contemplative book and is not for those who read only for plot.