Posted by: istop4books | October 4, 2010

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

This was a long book.  Very long.  The kind of book which is no longer written because in the age of internet and sitcoms we have no patience for long, drawn out descriptions of life.  There are no car chases, nothing gets blown up, no titillating sex scenes, no horrific dramas.  Actually, not much happens.  It was a tough book to read.  Slow, deliberate, thoughtful.  Anything but a page turner.  A book that was compelling once I was reading it, but not one that I ran to get back to.  But I’ve now finished it and I’m very glad I read it.  It’s the kind of book which will stick to my ribs for a long, long while.  It’s the kind of writing which is inspiring, lyrical, poetic.

Lyman Ward is a 50 something year old historian, crippled and living a bit of a pitiful life in his ancestral home.  He’s wheelchair bound and dependent on a caregiver for just about everything.  He takes it upon himself to research and write about the life of his grandmother Susan, a woman he knew and loved.  And so this author intertwines his current life with the life of Susan and her husband Oliver, a mining engineer as they embark on marriage and take off for the western territories of the 19th Century.  The difficulties of marriage, the trials of giving and not getting, of giving up, of confronting failure,  of hopes and dreams of two different people are all craftily explored in this book.  None of the characters is particularly lovely.  Susan is a flawed woman who clings to the idea that her childhood friend Augusta has a much more exciting and established life than she has herself. Susan is torn between her eastern society upbringing, and following her husband to the wilds of mining towns and bringing her children up without the civility of “better quality” people.  She struggles with a husband of few words and a yearning for something better – almost to prove to her friend Augusta that her husband, Oliver, was a worthy choice.  Oliver, is a quiet, thoughtful man who perhaps is too good, too trusting, too hopeful; at times I wanted to smack some gumption into him. Lyman, the grandson sitting in his wheelchair, has been dealt a terrible blow in life incapacitating him, depriving him of a wife and in a poor relationship with his own son.  He is not all smiles, he outlook on life is often a downer.  And so  – with these very human, flawed characters, Stegner analyzes life and marriage – the difficulties perhaps more than the joys,  and hits it out of the ball park. 

Some of my favorite quotes follow:

Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.” Susan was uprooted constantly by Oliver’s work opportunities.  She yearned for “home;”  for a place with memories, stability and the safety of lifetime friends and family.

“it is an easy mistake to think that non-talkers are non-feelers.” Oliver had little to say and often seemed remote.  It is easy to think that his lack of conversation meant he was not engaged, at times he did seem emotionally remote yet his actions clearly defy this theory (ie the rose).

“Wisdom. . .is knowing what you have to accept.” This stands alone.

“But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a somber sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne.” Don’t we all live with a dose of blunted desires and abandoned and deferred hopes?  With grief, defeat and missed opportunities? Our lives don’t end in a tidy little package with our children gathered around us, thoughtful and caring.  It would be nice, but it would also be a fantasy novel. 

My favorite quote:  “It happens that I despise that locution, “having sex,” which describes something a good deal more mechanical than making love and a good deal less fun than fucking.”


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