on May 29, 2010
I am of two minds about this book. I really enjoyed the premise, and the writing. And the story really brought home a major theme: that whatever you are exposed to in your youth sticks with you forever, for better or for worse.
The story is primarily about Golden Richards, a polygamist with four wives and approximately 28 kids. The logistical difficulties inherent in this lifestyle are made very clear early on. You get a real sense that Golden will be facing some problems, and indeed he does. The second major focus of the book is one of his sons, Rusty, who is also coping with being a "plyg" kid in the best way he knows how. The beginning of the book was sharp and focused and nicely paced. But the middle seemed to just be a series of roadblocks with no resolution or gratification for the reader. It was almost as if the author was saying to himself, "what can I do next to torture this guy some more?". The plot seemed to be just stuck in a rut at that point.
I'm kind of ambivalent about the book. It had some wonderful reviews and there were certainly parts of the book that got me thinking that this was some really fine writing. But after thinking about the book for a few days, I'm not feeling like it's one to strongly recommend, unless for those with a strong interest in the subject matter.
I think the initial draw to the book is the portrayal of a polygamist family (man, four wives, and twenty eight children), but ultimately to book succeeds in making the connections from comical extremes back to everyone's daily situation. The typical reader is likely to have one or zero spouses, but there's a humanity and fundamental commonality of experience in the drawing of the book's characters that allows us to enjoy the ride. This is a novel of the family and a novel of modern America with a protagonist trying to balance home life, work, the demands of society, and the wayward tugs of the heart. While juggling four sister-wives and a struggling construction business.
I'm not fully willing to go with that "Great American Novel" review quoted above in the amazon description. Udall certainly is willing to tackle big issues and write a broad tale, and it is a good read. There's maybe just a little edge that is missing. As if things are a touch too neat and tidy, and maybe there's been a little extra sugar on the bitter pills. It's a minor quibble, and you should definitely read the book!
on April 27, 2010
You figure a title like this has to be ironic, even sarcastic. For most of us the notion of a polygamist Mormon patriarch -- one possessed of four wives and 28 children -- probably conjures a despotic control freak. But this book is simply and sincerely titled. The protagonist Golden Richards is a sweet, bewildered, and thoroughly overwhelmed man.
Constantly fleeing and hiding from the demands and power plays of his wives and a melee of kids in three different houses, fighting to revive his failing construction business, deeply wounded by grief and guilt over the accidental death of a daughter and the still-birth of a son, he finds himself attracted to another woman who clearly needs help and attention but is precisely the wrong person for him to be seeing.
Apart from Golden, the narrative most often inhabits the minds of Rusty, a troubled 11-year-old lost in the pack, and Trish, the fourth and youngest wife. We get plenty of back stories along the way: the origins of Golden's father Royal, the courtship of his first wife Beverly, critical past moments in the history of this odd, sprawling family.
There are also wonderful miniature portraits -- of the true power brokers and go-getters in the local Mormon community, other polygamists like Ervil LeBaron who give the church a bad name, unattached mothers hoping to become Golden's fifth spouse, the odd books that characters read in hiding (from the romance novel, To Love a Scoundrel, to How to Derail a Train With Common Household Items), and the sweetest and wisest sheriff you could imagine.
The book reads easily, with much humor and occasional stabbing sorrow. Udall unobtrusively slips in a broad spectrum of the landscape, from Hispanic tenants with their drugs and mescal, to Nevada brothels, survivalist bomb shelters, and nuclear tests.
There are astounding plot turns, but not like those of a thriller that smack hard yet feel weightless; these surprises settle in and make you say, "but of course!" Udall truly does make this unusual situation feel quite normal. He makes you identify with everyone, and much to your surprise, sympathize with and even root for his protagonist.
"[T]his ... was the basic truth they all chose to live by: that love was no finite commodity. That it was not subject to the cruel reckoning of addition and subtraction, that to give to one did not necessarily mean to take from another; that the heart, in its infinite capacity--even the confused and cheating heart of the man in front of her, even the paltry thing now clenched and faltering inside her own chest--could open itself to all who would enter, like a house with windows and doors thrown wide, like the heart of God itself, vast and accommodating and holy, a mansion of rooms without number, full of multitudes without end."
I don't know how true-to-life this story may be. But it feels right, it reads beautifully and often hilariously, and I liked it an awful lot.
on August 15, 2010
This book has gotten great reviews this year, and I was rather eager to read it. But while it has many moments of hilarity, as well as genuine, relatable tragedy, I was left ultimately with a feeling of distaste for the book. Not because of the polygamist subject matter; on the contrary, I don't care what anyone's beliefs or living situations may be. Golden Richards (the protagonist) can have his four wives and 28 kids and I have no quarrel with it. There are other, more glaring faults with the book that prevent me from liking it.
My first bone of contention is with Golden Richards, who, as a character, is so ignorant as to be almost mentally challenged. He's a hulking brute with no education who just stumbles through the mess of disgruntled wives and rampantly rambunctious children he's tied to. This is a man who spends weeks with gum in his pubic hair, seemingly unable to figure out a way to remove it. While this episode is initially funny, it just becomes pathetic. When Golden is tempted to begin an affair that would destroy his family forever, he stumbles toward it just as he hulks into every other decision, fumbling and unthinking.
There are some good things to consider here as well, though. Udall gives us three narrators in this tale, and I enjoyed having other viewpoints from Golden's. We also hear from the fourth and youngest wife, Trish, and one of Golden's kids, 11-year-old Rusty, "the family terrorist." Trish's backstory and present view of her situation and the whole Richards' family situation are evidence that at least the women in this book know what's what. Trish isn't one to let the other wives run roughshod over her, but she also depends on them for many things, especially incorporating her introverted daughter from a previous marriage into the household. But Trish also lives independently, in an apartment in town. It's there that she develops a friendship with the always 'escaping' Rusty and Rusty's friend, the fireworks-loving handyman, June. The relationship between Trish and June is a lovely one, a what-if sort of relationship that gently grows out of commonalities - these two people just might make it if they left everything else behind.
With Rusty, Udall gives us the best character in the book. Outrageous, funny, sad, bitter, hateful, wonderful Rusty. When he goes off on his tirades against his 'evil aunt' or the sad fact that his clothes are in tatters and he doesn't have any friends at school, we are right there with him, rooting for him. He calls his dad "Sasquatch" and fantasizes about his future with Trish, while worrying about his own fragile mother and fighting with his many brothers and sisters.
My other bones of contention are the pat, tidy, wrapped and tacked ending, and the horrible fate that befalls a much loved member of the family. Having put up with some pretty bizarre goings-on for 500 pages, does the reader deserve the cheap hat trick of an ending to this novel? We want better for the characters (yes, even Golden), and Udall fails to deliver.
on April 16, 2010
This is the best book I have read in this (relatively) new year. By turns laugh out loud funny and hearbreakingly sad- its also endlessly creative. Its everything you would want in a piece of fiction- pick it up, read the 1st page, turn the page , read on- before you know it you are completely caught up in the world of Golden, his 4 wives and 28 children. This is a book to read once, tell all your friends about it, read it again. These characters and their story will stay with you for a long long time. The feeling I had while reading it was the feeling I remember having when I read Lonesome Dove for that 1st time. If you are a lover of good fiction- then you are in luck because this is fiction at its finest.
on August 21, 2013
The Lonely Polygamist is an imaginative riff on families' fundamental drive to create and maintain the illusion that they are "one big happy family." It very adeptly and humorously takes Tolstoy's catchy division of families into happy (they're all the same) and unhappy (they are each unique) to a whole new level.
In the world of The Lonely Polygamist, there is a unity between striving to achieve and hold onto happy family status, and the underlying tensions that erode the illusion. The fundamental lies built into the family structure that range from the little white fibs to the black hole variety that threaten to swallow and crush the family unit are the yin of family culture and work with the constant building, repairing, overhauling, or yang, needed to sustain the illusion of happiness.
A disclaimer: a number of reviews here treat the text as if the story is about polygamy. The Lonely Polygamist is about polygamy as Moby Dick is about fishing. The Lonely Polygamist is a thoughtful and humorous allegory, or meditation, on the dynamics of families. As the text clearly states, polygamy was chosen because it intensifies and magnifies the dynamics of families, including monogamous.
At the center of the family is Golden Richards (golden riches?) whose bind appears to be that he is a Mormon construction contractor who has undertaken a project to extend a bordello (turns out as the story unfolds that this is not nearly the biggest tension). The moral conflict is justified as a one-time deal to gain the money needed to sustain his company and family livelihood.
Then there are the four wives, maintaining the family, but each carrying their own secrets and needs as they plot and work as a political core that keeps the family humming along like a (family?) nuclear generator. Nuclear over atomic because fission - energy release through splitting - is their key dynamic.
And then there are the 28 kids, more unstable than uranium, they offer a chaotic background for the emergence of future families.
Through trials and tribulations that are compared to those of Jonah, Golden arrives at the conclusion that the way to save the family from disintegrating is to unify the family occupying three houses under one roof. (I can't help but think of house here as a loose metaphor for mind.)
But despite Golden's grand plan, it is undermined by the notion spelled out in a wonderful description of fallout from an atmospheric test of a nuclear bomb that "when it comes to humans, pain and suffering are passed through the generations like that unfashionable Christmas gift no one wants: disease and mutation, anger and despair, failures of intellect and character, all of it genetic damage in one way or another, all of it nothing less than the curse of the father upon the child, a curse inevitably repaid in kind."
Obviously, Udall uses Mormon polygamy as a literary vehicle for his story. But the thought invested in these pages also weaves allusions to Biblical passages, science (physics, chaos, and genetics), and more than a little Buddhism as well.
This is at once a thoughtful, humorous, and entertaining allegory. I was going to pass my copy on to my daughter, but instead am holding onto it and purchased a copy for her. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
on March 7, 2011
I've never been much of a fan of family sagas, but the idea of a family saga about polygamist fundamentalist Mormons was intriguing enough to lead me to read Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist. The book is centered around a man named Golden Richards, a well-meaning, but dim-witted cipher, who has been defined his whole life by the people around him. Now a member of radical Mormon splinter group, husband to four sister-wives (including two full-fledged sisters) and father to 28 children, Golden finds himself struggling with a midlife crisis. Secretly working as a contractor building a new addition to a brothel, Golden finds himself tempted by his boss's common law wife, an emotional and spiritual indiscretion as anathema to polygamists as it is to traditional couples. Meanwhile, his fourth wife, Trish, and troubled son, Rusty, deal with their own existential crises, all caused by the strain of living within a large polygamist family.
The lonely polygamist of the novel is nominally Golden, but could also include the other viewpoint characters, Trish and Rusty, as well as members of the sprawling supporting cast. Even surrounded by so much family it is possible to be completely and utterly alone. The various secrets held by the different characters collide at the climax of the book, as desperate and tragic act forces each member of the family to re-evaluate their commitment to each other.
I found The Lonely Polygamist to be well-written and enjoyable, even amusing at times, while exploring themes of loneliness and the isolation of being part of a non-mainstream subculture. Udall doesn't judge his characters so much as present them, and it's hard not to find some sympathy for Golden, Trish and Rusty. However, I was deeply dissatisfied by the ending, where the character changes were sometimes subtle and not necessarily in the best interests of the Richards clan. If anything, a book that should have been a repudiation of polygamy became an affirmation of it. And where you fall on that issue will largely inform how you ultimately feel about it. I respect it as a novel, but disagree with its ultimate conclusions.
on November 6, 2011
Lonely Polygamist is one of the longest books I have read in quite some time. I have a theory that when I am wanting to read really long books, I am trying to fight off my inevidable death (How can someone die while in the middle of a book?). This in nonsense, and I know it, but most of the time I avoid reading anything this long.
The 600+ pages breeze by, and the story, though a little underwelming, is quite an intersting cache of characters. You have four wives and 20+ kids, you have a fireworks maker, you have a renegade 12 year old, you have a brothel owner, you have an ostrich, and you have God of course. All of these things work together into a mesh that becomes a tangle and this tangle is not really as important or as good it could be, but it still becomes a pretty decent story.
Some of the best parts of this book are the symbols. Particually windows. There is an sense of sadness that comes when the characters look out of or in to windows. This sadness is fraut with desire, desire to run away but the panes of glass are keeping them prisoner, making them deal with the problems in their lives.
The worst part about this book is Golden Richards, the husband, liar, cheater, loser of the bunch. He is a big bumbling wimp, and there is really no reason why any of the women should be attracted to, let alone married to, him. He seems more like the guy who got a lucky break, found a wife, found three more wives, and does not know what to do with himself. He is such an dolt that it is more likely that he would not try to run from his family, but to his family, since they are the only people who, most likely, care about him. If he were a person in my life, I would see him as he is, a man who has alot, but is too stupid to figure it out. I probably wouldn't be friends with him though. In some moments of his story, I want to punch him in the face. Not because of anger but because someone needs to.
In all, I find that The Lonely Polygamist does has some merit, maybe literary, maybe to shed some light on the secrecy of plural marriage, but to say this is the best book I've ever read or that I would read it again is far from the truth.
on August 5, 2010
This book is all about being lonely in a crowd. Just because you're surrounded by people, surrounded by family doesn't mean that anyone really sees you or understands you. This book has alternating chapters told from four perspectives- Golden, a man with four wives and twenty -some odd children who has gotten to where he is in life by always doing what he's told and never questioning. Trish- Golden's fourth and youngest wife who re-connected with her faith and became a plural wife (having been raised in a "ply" family, as they are referred to in the book) after taking her daughter and leaving her failed marriage. Having suffered the loss of three children miscarried and stillborn, she thought that joining a large family would fill the hole those deaths left in her but it only seems to make her feel those losses more deeply. Rusty- one of the younger children of Golden's third sister-wife, is a stereotypical child longing for attention in a family where there isn't enough to go around, so he acts out in search of negative attention. His goal is to find a way to get his mother to take him and leave the polygamist family, longing for a more normal existence without fully understanding what that is. The fourth point of view is that of the houses this family lives in, an outsider's perspective on the lives of the people in this family.
Although not without its laugh-out-loud parts, this was a very morose book, filled with characters that couldn't seem to understand themselves. These characters were so constantly out of touch with themselves it was painful to read at parts. Obviously if the characters have it all together, the book would be fairly boring to read, but there IS some middle ground. These ones I found it hard to relate to on any level. It got to the point where I was actually hoping that there wouldn't be a happy ending as I didn't feel these characters deserved one. I'll leave you to read to book to find out if I got my wish. This book kept my interest enough to finish it but that's about all. If it had been free, I probably wouldn't have finished it.
on July 7, 2011
I bought this book because I read a number of rave reviews and it took me a few months to actual pick it up (kind of heavy, you know...) and I just loved every word of it, from cover to cover. Somehow, in spite of the fact that the characters were so different from me, and probably so different from you, unless you happen to be in a plural marriage with 4 wives, or an 11 yr old with 27 siblings, or the fourth and youngest wife who appears unable to have a baby, I felt I was relating to my next door neighbors. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and heartbreakingly so. I could not have enjoyed this book more.