Thursday, August 28, 2014

Angle of Repose

I had begun Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose about ten years ago and I think I wasn't ready to read something so subtle. I hadn't matured enough yet. A friend told me several months ago that she'd had a similar experience of reading it many years apart and finding it a completely different book. She encouraged me to give it another try. 

While recuperating from a surgery this summer I had more time than usual to read and decided it was just the book to keep me company. This may not have been such a hot idea because the main narrator of the story is a man suffering from a debilitating illness that has him in pain much of the time and, as I was feeling much the same at the moment--and not so eager to read about more of it--I read those sections with one eye closed. But despite that I greatly enjoyed the book on many levels.

I think you do have to be a certain age or mind-frame to savor a book that moves at a modulated pace and spends ample time on descriptions of both the outer world of the setting and the inner world of the characters as they grow and change. Both Lyman Ward, mentioned above, and his grandmother Susan Burling Ward, the other primary force, are complex nuanced people who struggle to rectify the many ugly indignities of their real-time lives with the longing for beauty in art and culture that governs their inner worlds. Shifting between Lyman Ward living as a near-recluse in 1970 and the vivid life of his grandparents as they came west to make their fortunes in the 1870's, the novel swings between one stagnant setting and one fast-moving setting. Yet the stagnant setting is resonant with Lyman's voice as he struggles to keep working on his grandmother's biography amidst the pain and humiliation of his debilitating disease. His voice rings clear and true and poignant. 

The more swashbuckling setting of the artist Susan Burling Ward and her husband Oliver moving from mining camp to mining camp as he takes on various engineering jobs is lush with color and motion, packed with dozens of interesting minor characters from many cultures. As many people have noted, it's a magnificent portrait of the early west. Susan Ward's struggle to hold onto the world of art and letters she left behind in New York as the the daily circumstances of her life continue to deteriorate create a tension that nearly vibrates off the page. Her intense love for her husband and children spars with her deep wish of escaping back to the world she loves--and craves--nearly, but not quite, as much.

In the end I was left with two overriding emotions. First was a powerful sadness for both Lyman and Susan, both of whom struggled to find the courage to endure their many disappointments. There was a great beauty in their endurance. The second was a warm glow of appreciation for the fine writing that brought their world to life and allowed me to spend time there. I felt like I'd visited much of the early west and could nearly shake the parched dirt from my shoes. (If I'd been able to reach my shoes at the time. . .)

In the end, then, I recommend this book to anyone who feels they are ready for it. It's a magnificent treat when you can savor it like you would anything slow and deep and finely-wrought.