Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

One of the best books I read last year was Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus Angle of Repose. But even though I loved the writing and appreciated the rare western setting (I may live in the South, but I was born, and will probably always think of myself as, a westerner) I’ve avoided reviewing the book here because I came out of the read with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I absolutely loved the curmudgeonly narrator, retired historian Lyman Ward. Under the guise of this crotchety old invalid, Stegner shares interesting views on history and hippies, and on the tricky marriage and family relationships that almost all of us can identify with. He’s able to weave two tales together- the disastrous modern-day failure of Ward’s own marriage and the improbable survival of his Victorian grandparents’ union on the Western frontier. It is a book that has important things to say, and one that will cause the reader to reflect on his or her own life. I loved the book, but there was one fly in the ointment: I couldn’t stand the main character by the end of the book.

I won’t throw out any spoilers, but the gist of my gripe is that the narrator’s grandmother, and the main subject of the book, begins to grate on me about half way through the story. There’s no question she’s asked to put up with more than her fair share of trials as her engineer husband tries to eke out a meager existence in the rough-and-tumble mining communities all across North America. But the self-righteousness and regret that comes to dominate her world-view really took a toll on my ability to care about her. She increasingly looks down her nose at her husband, and rues the day she ever cut ties with the East-coast salons where she feels she really belongs.

I have a hunch that Stegner spotted the problem, as well, and he looked for a way to tip the scales back in her favor. This would explain why her engineer husband suddenly develops a drinking problem just pages before she commits her most egregious marital crimes. I have to say, though, that this extra justification just didn’t work for me. Had he focused on the more sympathetic character of the husband, and told the same story through his eyes, I might have liked this great book even more.

Still, Stegner’s commentary on marriage and what makes it work will be well worth your time. As his narrator says about his grandparents towards the end of the book:
“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.”
I highly recommend the book despite my misgivings about Susan Burling Ward as an unlikeable character. After all, I suppose we can still learn a thing or two from people who annoy us. Check it out:


  1. I read this in seventh grade... I had actually forgotten I had read it until this post. Now I'm interested in reading it again and seeing how much it has changed when read from an adult's perspective.

    1. Who knows, if you're a wife who feels like she's being held back by her husband's stop-and-start career, you may love and identify with the main character. (One thing I didn't mention in my post is that she's based on a real person- and her real-life letters are excerpted in the book) I just didn't feel it.

      I'll admit that as a reader you want them to finally catch a lucky break, I just got tired of all the complaining and handwringing...

    2. I hear ya. It may be a "reading fault" of mine, but I find myself losing patience with characters sometimes. From what I can remember of The Angle of Repose, this was one of them. I felt guilty for losing patience with the wife of the main character in Giants of the Earth since she was obviously suffering some sort of anxiety disorder.. and I felt no guilt for losing patience with the main character in The Stranger. I guess it just depends on your personality... or your mood that day. :)

  2. I must say that i LOVE the title of this book: The Angle of Repose.

    “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.”

    It's an astronomically beautiful idea. Two people rolling downhill into the future until they reach the angle of repose, where everything else ceases to move, and they rest, and they exist in that moment.

    Love that title.