ANGLE OF REPOSE

Because it is a new year doesn’t mean a reviewed book has to be new. If Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose hadn’t been the Clayton Community Library Book Club pick for January 2019, I never would have chosen it for review; sometimes we readers just get lucky.

A lot of book clubs draw the line on reading books over four-hundred pages, so it was a bit of a surprise that Stegner’s novel, all five-hundred-plus pages, was voted in as our first read of 2019. Even more of a surprise as I began reading Angle of Repose (a copy which I unexpectedly found on my own shelves), was the marginalia throughout the book. Buying a used book with such notetaking is not something I generally do. It took only about fifty pages into the book to recognize the handwriting as my own. With a bit more delving, I found I had read the book ten years earlier. The notes were botanical and geological, and not a one was literary.

Most of you who read this review will be familiar with Angle of Repose and its standing as a classic in American literature. So, instead of writing specifically of plot, action, and characters, I’m going to imagine that I’m still working in a bookstore when a customer walks in and asks for a good read. I will grab the latest edition of Angle of Repose, always in print, and unabashedly tell my customer that it is the best book I’ve read in a long time. It is such an American story: a story of East Coast vs. West Coast and the personal costs of living through the explosive development of the west in the 1800s.

Lyman Ward is an ill and wheelchair-bound retired history professor (aged 58). Recently divorced by his wife, he struggles to find his way through the turns his life has taken. Determined to write a biography of his beloved and famous artist/author grandmother, he moves into his grandparent’s long-empty home in Grass Valley, California. The year is 1970.

Lyman Ward has lived through the turbulent years of the late 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley. Now living in a home that has been modified for his disabilities, he manages with caretaking help from longtime neighbors. He gathers personal letters and professional documents relating to his grandmother’s long life and begins her story.

Lyman is most interested in his grandmother’s marriage. Susan Burling Ward, born and raised on the East Coast, unexpectedly marries a young, enthusiastic mining engineer when the man she truly loves chooses to marry her best friend. She follows her young husband Oliver Ward west, leaving behind amazed friends and colleagues. It is a rocky marriage with failed mining projects and a life of little refinement. For many years it is her illustrations and writing which support her husband’s shaky career.

The wife of a mining engineer is never an easy one and Lyman’s grandmother, on occasion, with her children in tow, moves in frustration from the mining towns of Colorado and Idaho back to the East Coast, back into the world of art and fine literature. But she always returns to her husband, to the promise of the west, to the promise of “until death do us part.” Lyman discovers things about his grandmother that both confirm suspicions he has held and surprises about hidden parts of her persona. Angle of Repose is a novel about a man writing a novel. It is as much about Lyman Ward’s life as about his grandmother’s. Stegner’s novel is enhanced by the complexity of his characters and the realities of choices made by those who believed America’s future was in the west. One of the choices made by Susan Ward was to accompany her husband to assess a mine’s value in Morelia, Mexico. As she did in other mining towns (like Leadville, CO), she sketched and wrote about her surroundings for East Coast literary magazines. These illustrations and writings supplemented her husband’s income, never substantial enough to support the Ward family.

If you love stories of the wild west, the refined east, family sagas, or layered love stories, Angle of Repose will not disappoint. Susan Ward’s character is based on the real-life writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote who was also married to a mining engineer, and I suspect the fictional Susan Ward’s writings and illustrations are matched by the words of Wallace Stegner’s novel. I would love to read an illustrated edition of Angle of Repose making use of Foote’s published illustrations.

Angle of Repose has caused me to reopen my family albums with their sepia colored past, to pause and imagine more deeply the life my grandparents and great-grandparents led. An angle of repose, a geological term, is a place of rest and not a bad place to begin a new year. – Sunny Solomon

6 Responses

  1. Wallace Stegner is a source of constant inspiration for me. Glad you read Angle. I’m now reading some of his essays. Marvelous. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian is one of my favorite books.

    1. Thanks, Neal. Will you review the essays? Which one are you reading right now? Is it BHM? I have a couple of his other collections of essays. Repose is almost a primer for what would happen in the West’s future on several levels. Wouldn’t an illustrated edition of Repose be great? I doubt it would happen given the bad feelings from members of Mary Hallock Foote’s family regarding Stegner’s take on her. Try to make time for a review of his essays — tearing yourself away from the grandkid isn’t easy.

  2. Having read countless novels over decades, and Angle of Repose many years ago- still consider it a great American novel. Now having recently completed a novel that is thin on conventional “plot” and suspect from the lack of interest from my “queries” to agents is the thin plot described. Of course Stegner was a writer of immense power, and a recognized master, and his novel extraordinary, and award winning – yet is spite of defying literary convention, without a plot device, unheard of in fiction today to be successful.

    1. Arthur, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about “Angle of Repose.” It was interesting to read about your take on its weak plotting. Notice how I specifically side-stepped the plot in my review. I wish you good luck in finding a home for your novel. It gets harder and harder. And please, do stop by and visit BWS. We love hearing from our readers.

  3. This was, and will be, the best book I ever read. It is, at its essence, about forgiveness. We make our choices, in career and love, and move along the trajectory that such choices put in front of us. i appreciate that his backdrop is the West and and the distinctions he draws between the western settlers and the eastern elites (so what else is new?) are well-informed. But that’s not what the book is about.

    At the end, through the narrator, Stegner describes the need (i.e. the obligation) to come to grips with the requirements our physical presence presents for us in the ‘real-world’ (and, of course, its limitations) and acknowledges that (if we are lucky) there are family members willing to support us through our imitations towards a satisfying life. (Stegner presents a wonderful juxtaposition between the ‘free-love teenager’ and his ex-wife’s traditional approach towards a marital committment).

    Using the backdrop of the story he writes of his grandmother – who marries a man no one her family or friends expects her to marry and finds, if Stegner’s written actions speak louder than words, satisfaction and happiness – he writes of his own marital experience. Yes there are trials and tribulations – but Stegner’s herione never gives up – and neither does the Stegner’s narrator – even as his own life begins caving in on him. This book is an inspiration for everyone and everyone should read it.

    1. Thanks so much, Mollie, for such a thoughtful reply to the “Angle of Repose” review. You share many good points. Take a look at Arthur Mitchell’s remarks about AR. What I love about hearing from people who have read a particular title is the POV each reader brings to her/his reading. I hope you will continue to stop by BWS to see what we are reading.

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