Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Modern Library Challenge: #82 - Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

"Angle of Repose is a novel about Time, as much as anything--about people who live through time, who believe in both a past and a future. . . . It reveals how even the most rebellious crusades of our time follow paths that our great-grandfathers' feet beat dusty."
        -Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose, to put it as simplistically as possible, is about Lyman Ward's efforts to write the history of his Grandmother and Grandfather's time as settlers in the West. Un-simplistically, it is a book about marriage, loss, regret, and longing. It is a touching book, to say the least.

The narrative flips back and forth between Lyman's struggles in his life in the 1970's and writing his Grandmother's history in the and excerpts from the book itself. The troubles he faces are myriad: a skeletal disease which confines him to a wheelchair; a mix of longing and contempt for a wife who left him when his disease struck; a son who wants to send him to a convalescent home; and the writing of the project itself. There is a great deal of introspection throughout the novel, even inserting itself as editorial in his Grandmother's history.

Speaking of the history: it focuses on Susan Ward a country girl - turned New York socialite, writer, and artist - turned pioneer wife. Throughout the novel, the latter two distinction - socialite and pioneer wife - are in direct, vicious conflict. Susan feels regret at compromising her professional and social career by moving West; regret which clashes with her loyalty and faith in her stoic, forgiving husband Oliver. As time passes and Susan grows into middle age, the regret begins to tilt the scale against loyalty and faith, which is reflected in their marriage. As of this tension builds to a heartbreaking climax that I am, of course, am not going to reveal to you.

Stegner's writing in this novel is tremendous. The wonderful description of the places in which they settle reflects the state of the Wards' marriage: from their beautiful, lively time in Mexico to the sterile, lifeless settlement later in their lives in Idaho. His transition between the two narratives is seamless and sometime both narratives run simultaneously. His portrayal of the West is easily the best I've ever read; escaping stereotypes both positive and negative.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone, not just fans of Western subjects. Really, though it takes place in the West, it is not a Western. The story of the difficulties of marriage and regret for what could have been could take place in any setting, in time or place. The prose is detailed, yet easy to read. Overall, just a great book. There's a reason it won a Pulitzer prize when it was published.

I give Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner four out of five stars.

Next up: #81 - Adventures of Augie March  by Saul Bellow

On deck: #80 - Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh