A recent widow in Ireland, Nora Webster faces the future without her husband, Maurice, the man who has defined the contours of her world since their marriage and the raising of four children. A beloved schoolteacher, Maurice is the focus of a constant outpouring of condolences that is nearly overwhelming for the widow and her children in this intimate 1970s community, such support common and comforting to the bereaved. While her eldest daughter, Fiona, is away at school with the second, Aine, soon to follow, the two younger boys, Donal and Connor, are all that anchors Nora to the reality of daily demands.
Pulled between her longing for Maurice, as she remembers the agonizing last year of his illness, and life without him, Nora must force herself to be present, to greet the stream of visitors and tend to the needs of her boys. Donal, who was particularly close to his father, has developed a troubling stutter and a passion for photography. Nora is unsure what to do with either of them, more likely than not to let them have their way. This passiveness seems to consume Nora, an inability to make decisions or determine the path ahead, unmoored as she is by the thought of going forward without Maurice.
In this intimate study of grief and adjustment to permanent loss, Toibin cuts to the heart of the process. Nora often appears self-absorbed but deeply traumatized, nearly undone by her circumstances, a mid-forties woman with no marketable skills and limited funds facing an indeterminate future. As she goes through the motions of living, selling the family vacation cottage by the sea, agreeing to take an office job (a position she held before her marriage), and meeting social obligations with family and friends, Nora senses her children drifting away but finds it impossible to say the words to draw them closer.
Nora’s is a life proscribed by convention, even when the troubles in Dublin break into the relative peacefulness of home on the nightly television news, events that raise the family’s political awareness, engaging all in a lively dialog. Yet Nora remains isolated, neither here nor there in a familiar routine of Catholic ritual and well-meaning family interference. Maurice remains a presence that hovers outside her consciousness and permeates her dreams.
Ironically, it is music that stirs the sad widow’s heart—and awakens a connection to her mother, with whom she has a contentious relationship as a girl—the opportunity to work with a professional teacher and find the voice long-stilled, to respond to classical music as it draws her slowly, painfully back to life. The solitary journey, the contemplation of existence after loss, is filled with profound insight and compassion for a woman seeking to find herself, to embrace the beckoning world around her.