Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Bottom line: I loved this book and would recommend it.
AND: I found 2 serious flaws that prevented me giving it more than 4 stars on Good Reads. Read on.

The present year is 1970. Historian Lyman Ward has been forced into early retirement by a bone disease that has left him in pain, wheelchair bound, minus one leg, unable to move his neck, and slowly petrifying. The disease is never named. Ankylosing Spondylitis? To add insult to injury his wife has left him. Baffled by the turmoil of the sixties, Lyman retreats into the past. 

Assisted by a friend of his youth, whose family has served his for several generations, Lyman has ensconsed himself in the home of his paternal grandparents, who had raised him. He is writing their biography, based on the fiction and letters of his grandmother.

The bulk of the book is devoted to their story, told partly in the third person and partly through directly quoted letters. The lives of mining engineer Oliver Ward and his genteel artist wife Susan coincide with the opening of the West in the late nineteenth century and are a great read, especially since the story is told from the perspective of a remarkable woman. Interspersed with the story are glimpses into the daily struggles of Lyman. He hires the troubled daughter of his caregiver as a summer secretary. She handily serves as the bra-less representative  of the hippie culture, which both repels and fascinates the historian.

The characters of Oliver and Susan are based on historical figures, originally with permission by their families.  

The main objection is that the story follows their lives both too closely, and takes too many liberties. I can quite understand the dismay of the family, who felt that Wallace should have invented either more, or less. 
The life of Susan closely follows the real life of Mary Hallock Foote, a remarkable woman who was a much published and acclaimed writer and illustrator in her day. Parts of the letters supposedly penned by a fictional character are lifted verbatim from Mary's real letters. But then Wallace invents moral dilemmas and situations that may or may not have anything to do with the historical figure. I have added Mary's real memoirs, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, published 1972, to my want to read list.

The second objection is the ploy used in the final chapter. While delving into his grandparents marriage Lyman reflects on his own. Conveniently his wife's lover has died, she is making efforts to get back in touch.
In the final chapter Lyman describes a long sequence of events, totally realistically, and then turns around and makes it all "just a dream". DUH. Sorry, it does not work. I have nothing against using dreams, but these scenes have nothing dream-like about them. It reminded me of the scrapping of a whole season in the 80's soap opera Dallas in order to bring back a popular character who had been killed off.

Nevertheless, this was a great novel and I appreciate the introduction to Mary Hallock Foote.

1 comment:

Ginger_Doxie said...

Thanks for sharing the review :) I've been trying to jump back into some books myself.