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#82….Angle of Repose

March 3, 2010

“There must be some other possibility than death or lifelong penance, said the Ellen Ward of my dream, that woman I hate and fear. I am sure she meant some meeting, some intersection of lines; and some cowardly, hopeful geometer in my brain tells me it is the angle at which two lines prop each other up, the leaning-together from the vertical which produces the false arch. For lack of a keystone, the false arch may be as much as one can expect in this life. Only the very lucky discover the keystone.”

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is a beautiful, triumphant, bittersweet epic that brings together the lives of his main character, Lyman Ward, and his grandparents. Lyman is a historian, confined to a wheelchair by a bone disease and an amputated leg, living in California in the house his grandparents built. His wife has recently left him for someone else, and rather than looking towards a bleak future, or living in the painful present, Lyman chooses to delve into the past by writing a book about his famous grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. Enlisting the help of his caretaker’s free-spirited daughter Shelly, he begins to go through the papers and letters his grandmother left behind to piece together her life story and the unusual relationship she had with her husband, Oliver.
Susan Burling is an Easterner, living among the wealthy literati, attending art school. Her life changes on the night she meets Oliver Ward, a quiet, gentle miner from the West. When Susan’s love interest, the wealthy Thomas Hudson, marries her best friend Augusta, Susan decides to marry Oliver and move West, having little or no idea of the trials and hardships that will accompany the life of a cultured woman in the uncivilized wilds of California and Idaho. As the trusting Oliver is screwed in business again and again by unscrupulous opportunists, Susan becomes dissatisfied with her life and disappointed in her husband, and turns to her writing and drawing to support her growing family. While pining away for her past life back East, she misses out on the present and pushes those who love her away, until the one day she makes a fatal mistake and causes a tragedy that permanently damages her marriage. As he goes through Susan’s papers, Lyman begins to see the parallels between the mistakes his grandparents made and his own life, and in the end, “wonders if I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather.”
I cannot say enough good things about this book. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay area for a few years, Stegner’s descriptions of the ruggedness of the California, Colorado and Idaho landscapes are dead-on and beautiful. His depictions of marriage as either an intersection of two lives, or two lives that lean against each other but never connect, is profound. The message of forgiveness for past wrongs, never taking anything for granted, and living each day firmly in the present is one that will stay with me for a long time. I was completely brought into the story, hoping against hope that Oliver would find the security and opportunity he was repeatedly denied, and that Susan would learn to accept her situation rather than continue to resist it. Alas, I was disappointed on both fronts.
This was a beautiful story depicting the culture clash between the civilized East and the uncivilized West. Finding out that it was based on the life of a real woman, Mary Hallock Foote, made the story even more compelling. Everyone should read it.

This book also counts towards both of the reading challenges I have set for myself this year…The Chunkster Challenge and the Battle of the Prizes, American Version. Those are on the sidebar if you want to join up too.

Grade: A+
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