Friday, July 25, 2014

Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose
The best part about reading through the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list remains the masterpieces I come across that would be unlikely to have crossed my path otherwise. Perhaps someday, while accomplishing a future goal of reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners, I would have come to it. However, since the goal of reading all the Pulitzers stemmed from this challenge in the first place, I still have to credit Modern Library for bringing Wallace Stegner to my attention.

The book, which did win the prestigious award in 1972, loosely follows the life of writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote. Stegner, who has actually been accused of plagiarism, copied large sections of her letters to use in the book. He did, however, claim to have permission from her family to do so.

In the novel, East Coast Quaker Susan Burling strikes up a romance with mining engineer Oliver Ward. The two marry and proceed to move all around the western frontier as Oliver's career carries them about. The book covers their life together and times apart, including the relationships they build and the three children they have.

What makes the story unique is Stegner's narrator. Lyman Ward lives in the late 1960s. A retired history professor, he is now an amputee and slowly dying of a "petrifying" disease. He is divorced and has one son, who does not seem to bring him any particular joy during his visits. Rather, Lyman has chosen to spend his last years telling the story of his grandparents, Susan and Oliver. He recounts their narrative and embellishes where he deems necessary. His sources are the multitude of letters written between the East and the West over the many years of the Wards' life.

Steger, through Lyman, tells the story beautifully. The detail and tenderness with which Lyman presents his grandparents is touching. He pulls no punches, but he shows great care as well. He obviously revered them, both in life and death. Having Lyman's circumstances and opinions interjected gave the book an interesting twist, as well.

I found the passages about the Wards' homes across the Western frontier to be my favorite parts. Stegner describes the landscapes around them in such a way that I was reminded of L.M. Montgomery's treatments of Prince Edward Island. Stegner makes you long that you could go back and see the beauty of the wild, untamed land. That, coming from a girl who no intention of ever camping or 'roughing it' again in her life.

Part of the beauty of the novel lies in Stegner's transparent look at marriage and the sacrifices therein. Oliver and Susan do not have an easy go of things. Their marriage faces challenges that, though they may have been more commonplace at the time, are nearly practically foreign to most modern readers. Both make choices that painfully put the other first and both make selfish choices as well. Having been married almost two years now (practically an eternity, I realize), I felt that Stegner displayed the joys and heartaches of the relationship with poignant accuracy. Marriage is hard work (cliché, but true) and offers both great rewards and great burdens for that work.

It is easy to understand why Modern Library selected this book for its list. I can easily claim it as one of my favorites thus far in the challenge. It is also easy to see why San Francisco Chronicle readers voted it #1 novel written about the West. I have not read a lot of novels about the West, but I can't imagine anyone portraying that part of the world with more skilled reverence.

Pages: 569
Date Completed: June 28, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment