Friday, September 14, 2007

Angle of Repose

Before the internet, before book blogs and reading forums expanded my tbr lists expotentially, I often relied on one book to lead me to another--sticking with the same author, sticking with the same genre, or, best of all, venturing off on the trail of the books mentioned in the one I happened to be reading at the time (I'm sure I've mentioned several times already that I read Middlemarch for the first time because the imaginary best friend of the main character in Lorrie Moore's Anagrams had a propensity for yelling at random people out of car windows: Go home and read Middlemarch!).

Angle of Repose offers a slight variation on the above. Wallace Stegner wrote his Pulitzer-winning novel after reading an extensive collection of letters written by Mary Hallock Foote, a novelist, artist, and western correspondent for various 19th century Eastern establishment magazines; he incorporates many of these letters into his narrative, a practice that led to some plagiarism charges later on. I now want to read more than mere bits and pieces of Mary Hallock Foote and was delighted to find both an autobiography and her first novel (The Led-Horse Claim, a romance set in a western mining camp in the late 1880s) hidden away down in Compact Shelving. I was even more thrilled to see that the autobiography, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, is still in print--it was originally published in 1972, the year after Stegner's novel came out--and that there have been at least two biographies written more recently about Foote as well. Of course, I want to read them all.

Do I wish I'd skipped the Stegner and gone straight to the Foote materials? No way. Stegner's novel is centered around one Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history who has returned to his grandparents' home after he's stricken with a painful, debilitating bone disease that has left him wheelchair-bound and gorgon-faced. While he was still in the hospital his wife ran off with the surgeon who amputated his leg and, needless to say, Lyman harbors great bitterness toward her. He's not on the best of terms with his son, either, a sociologist who has "no sense of history" and who would like to see his father in a retirement home rather than living on his own, as Lyman's own father had done, until he became strange enough for Lyman to have him locked away. (I think Rodman has a little bit more sense of history than Lyman will give him credit for.) And he certainly doesn't like "the coloration of the 1960s" and the current "gulf" between the generations or anything much else that's modern and prone to breaking apart.

Lyman, who was raised primarily by his grandparents, spends his days reading letters written by his grandmother, a genteel Quaker woman of great sensibility, "the best-known woman illustrator of her time," who was brought west in the 1870s by her husband, an engineer too honest to ever get ahead during the Gilded Age. Over time she becmes increasing disillusioned with her husband and their prospects. Their early transitory years, described in the letters, reveal hardship and a relationship very different from the one Lyman experienced in his years with them, when their earlier poverty had been left behind and they'd gained financial security and status in their community.

What Lyman is after in his research is the angle of repose, the engineering term meaning the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling which he applies as a metaphor to his grandparents' lives: "What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That's where the interest is. That's where the meaning will be if I find any."

Lyman wants to live in the past, when husbands and wives did not abandon one another. What Lyman uncovers during his research is that what looks like repose from the outside can disguise myriad forms of abandonment just as heartbreaking.

A brilliant book.

9 comments:

BooksPlease said...

I agree, a brilliant book indeed, I loved it. Thanks for the references to more info on Mary Hallock Foote - she sounds an amazing woman.

Girl Detective said...

I'm a curmudgeon who hated this book. I found it heavily implied that the Mary character should have not worked, and stayed loyal to her husband and if she had, the VERY BAD THING wouldn't have happened, plus he wouldn't have become a drunk. I found an underlying current of something like hatred against women both in the past story, and in how Lyman related to all the women around him.

Bybee said...

OOOOOOOhhhh.....now I want this book! Whine. Susan, you're a bad influence. Keep it up. And keep mentioning Anagrams...I want everyone to read it, and I want to read it a third time myself.

jenclair said...

Me, too. I don't know why it never interested me before, but now it does and the biographical works, as well.

Then there is Anagrams... which I'd never even heard of, but now want to read.

Dorothy W. said...

This sounds quite good -- Stegner is not someone I would have thought of reading -- which is perhaps an excellent reason to do so!

Framed said...

I didn't care for the book much even though there were some great descriptive passages. I thought the Mary character was selfish and self-absorbed. But I enjoyed your review.

Gentle Reader said...

Oh my gosh, I love Stegner and especially Angle of Repose. Now I have to read Foote's autobiography--I didn't know it existed--thank you! Maybe I'll read her first novel, too...

My husband and I got to know each other over a discussion of Stegner's Crossing to Safety, which we both loved, so I have a soft spot for him.

Petunia said...

Excellent review. I am adding it to The List. =)

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