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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Angle of Repose is such a fruitful book that I have had to mull it over for several days after finishing the story. Being drawn into the life and mind of Susan Burling Ward gives me much to contemplate about human frailty, personal attraction, and the uniqueness of the American West in the 19th century. Stegner is a subtle and intelligent writer; what’s more, he treats his subjects with the dignity due to well-intentioned but flawed human beings.

Lyman Ward is a 58-year-old history professor (a favorite persona in Stegner’s novels) who’s retired to the family cottage to pour over his grandmother Susan’s papers and reconstruct her life - at least the most important part of her life, the 14 first years of her life with Oliver Ward. Susan was educated in genteel New York fashion in the 1860s and began a very successful lifelong career as an artist and writer in the 1870s. Oliver Ward was a mining engineer whose dedication and bad luck led him all over the West, following job after job. They were perhaps a bit mismatched, but their marriage thrived on mutual goodwill. Slowly, misfortune and their natural imperfections interfere. It is a fascinating study, admirably written.

Optimism carries the couple along jauntily for several years (and a few hundred pages). It is a pleasure to see their youthful inventiveness in inhospitable mining towns; their loving encouragement of the other’s vocation. However, towards the middle of the book, I found myself wondering, “is this ever going to end?” Susan and Oliver became mired in what I called the Boise Stagnation. They were waiting and waiting for a break in their luck, which came after 8 long years (and then only briefly). As their hope and patience wore thin, the pages seemed to drag on and on, and I was amazed that the author was so effective in conveying his characters’ torpor that even I, the reader, felt it.

There are plenty of things to think about here, and one thing I began to wonder about was avoiding adultery. No one wrongfully sleeps with anyone else in this story. However, Susan’s mind seemed to drift away from Oliver toward the possibility of Frank. It wasn’t that Frank was a superior man, but being exhausted in hope, she yearned for something new and fresh, unsullied yet by real circumstances. It seems that “possibilities” are hopes unfulfilled and inherently seductive. “Who hopes for what he already has?” The first step in adultery may be awakening to some lack in the current relationship and imagining something better with another, lesser known, person. The mere fact that the other person is little known and the outcome nebulous makes the extramarital relationship more interesting, more attractive, fuller of hope and positive possibility. Possibly this realization can help people to recognize when they are in danger of wandering away from their love.

Title:Angle of Repose
Author:Wallace Stegner
Date published:1971
Genre:Historical fiction
Number of pages:557


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