Winner of the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in 1971, Angle of Repose has also been selected by the editorial board of the Modern Library as one of the hundred best novels of the 20th century. Wallace Stegner's uniquely American classic centers on Lyman Ward, a noted historian who relates a fictionalized biography of his pioneer grandparents at a time when he has become estranged from his own family. Through a combination of research, memory, and exaggeration, Ward voices ideas concerning the relationship between history and the present, art and life, parents and children, and husbands and wives. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward's investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life. The result is a deeply moving novel that, through the prism of one family, illuminates the American present against the fascinating background of its past. Set in many parts of the West, Angle of Repose is a story of discovery - personal, historical, and geographical - that endures as Wallace Stegner's masterwork: an illumination of yesterday's reality that speaks to today's.
"Brilliant....Two stories, past and present, merge to produce what important fiction must: a sense of the enhancement of life." (Los Angeles Times) "Masterful...Reading it is an experience to be treasured." (Boston Globe)
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Ten years ago I picked up this novel, read through the first couple of chapters, uttered an, "ugh" and moved on--with serious doubts regarding the tastes of the friend that recommended the read. (In hindsight and looking at some of my own choices, I understand whose taste was questionable.) Forward ten years--I find myself wondering if this novel I've been glued to the last 3 days is the same book I plodded through years ago.
I recently saw a documentary on Wallace Stegner, produced in 2009 at the request of then Utah Governor, Jon Huntsman, whom declared Feb. 18th, '09, Wallace Stegner Day in Utah (Stegner lived in Utah and graduated from the University of Utah). It was out of curiosity, not native pride (I'm a transplant) that I purchased this Stegner novel. Same book--very different eyes and ears. Awarded the Pulitzer in '72, on the *Top 100* and *Most Important* books of the century, by an author referred to as the "conscience of the conservation movement," nonetheless considered overlooked, underrated, controversial, and (piously) snubbed.
For retired historian Lyman Ward, a window to the past becomes ominously reflective as he looks into the history of his grandparents and sees his own possible future. The text resourcefully splices together the actual letters of 19th century author and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote with a fictional story-in-a-story of marriage, expectations, exploration, art, and the conquest of the wild unforgiving west. The letters--the blasted wonderful letters that caused such controversy--are the framework for the story, and add an authentic Victorian flourish, so polar to the rough ungentrified country west of the Mississippi. Hallock's missives are an incredible record of the times, a timeline entwining Geronimo terrorizing the west with Emily Dickinson writing her poetry, Twain publishing Huckleberry Finn, Winslow Homer painting, Wyatt Earp keeping law and order in Tombstone. They also reflect the contrasts of the changing times: the elite artists and writers of the eastern states--the rugged west and the toughened adventurers; the dreams of an aspiring artist/genteel lady--the harsh realities of life in the west; the exploitation of the land--the uncommon insight of conservation. But, it took Stegner's beautiful writing to create this unforgettable depiction of the raw frontier and the colorful characters that fought for every inch of conquest; it is his words, not the regrettful ponderings of Hallock, that create this generational quest to find balance and grace. The controversy and snub that resulted from Stegner using the letters seem a moot point to me when presented with such a beautiful novel. Stegner acknowledged using the letters, and openly stated he had the permission of the descendant that turned the letters over to him to do so. (I doubt Leonardo's critic's thought him less an artist because Mona was uncannily mysterious and beautiful).
The novel hasn't changed in 10 years, but my appreciation of it has; it is now a favorite. Sometimes it is better to be told a story than it is to read a story. The audio version was perfection for this book; the characters came alive, the West was vivid and enticing, and I was captivated.
The story is told by Lyman Ward, a grumpy historian pushing 60 who has been disabled by a serious joint problem during the 1970s. To occupy his hours, he is researching the story of his grandparents' marriage, mostly from the perspective of his grandmother, Susan, a "lady" from good Massachusetts stock, shoulder-rubber with writers and artists like Louisa May Alcott and Emerson. Her husband, Oliver Ward, is a mining engineer, and his (very rocky) career takes them all over the West in mid-1800s. This is alternately exhilarating and devastating for her, as their fortunes and hopes go up and down and she feels she's in "exile" from almost anyone who could understand her.
Meanwhile, Lyman hires the caretaker's daughter, a free-spirited counterculture type, and they talk about the differences between the new ways of seeing life and love and his grandmother's. (He mostly gets the best of these discussions.)
The novel won a bunch of prizes when it came out years ago -- well deserved. It's one of the greatest American novel's I've ever read. There were times when, listening to it on my headset, I just had to stop whatever I was doing and just allow the story to happen because I could not do or think of anything else.
Some other notes: This also has to be one of the best novels written by a man from a (mostly) woman's perspective that I've ever read as well, and the narrator, Mark Bramhall, handles this SO well. He has to go from taciturn Western men, to cranky gruff Lyman, to genteel Susan and not make any of them sound like caricatures: Bravo!
Also, finally, what a moving, sad, joyful, compassionate, wise depiction this is of a long marriage, one of the most commonplace and yet mysterious of human experiences.