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Angle of Repose Paperback – November 4, 2014
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From Publishers Weekly
It is at first disconcerting that the narrator sounds half the age of the author's narrator: Lyman Ward is an elderly, severely crippled historian at odds with his wife and children over his ability to live alone and write. But Mark Bramhall's comparative youth is soon forgotten as he leads us into the saga of intertwined generations. His pacing, his characterizations, and his convincing emotional repertoire embed us in this 1971 Pulitzer Prize winner that is in no way dated. Stegner's heroine is Ward's grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a 19th-century writer and artist living in the rough mining towns of the West with her idealistic engineer husband. Bramhall's Susan is sometimes too girlish, but this, too, is a small matter; overall, he offers us a fine reading of a superb book. A Penguin Classics paperback. (Mar.)
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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“Masterful...Reading it is an experience to be treasured.”—Boston Globe
“Brilliant...Two stories, past and present, merge to produce what important fiction must: a sense of the enhancement of life.”—Los Angeles Times
“Cause for celebration...A superb novel with an amplitude of scale and richness of detail altogether uncommon in contemporary fiction.”—The Atlantic Monthly
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Top Customer Reviews
Given all this, I find it utterly astonishing that a couple of reviewers should have the impression that he does not know whereof he wrote. For instance, one reviewer wrote, "Bottom line: the West has a geography, and its denizens a temperament, that demands that we write and read about it in a way that does justice to the hard realities of life in a barren place." Why he would imagine that Stegner, who was intimately familiar with the geography, was one of its denizens, and knew first hand the hard realities of the place by spending his childhood in a variety of barren places, utterly baffles me. I suspect that it is because the book writes about the REAL West and not the West of the Imagination.
Lyman Ward, distinguished historian (Stegner himself, though primarily a writer of fiction, was the author of several works of history, though the character was based on former colleague of his who suffered from a physical condition precisely like Ward's) is studying family documents with an eye to writing a book detailing the story of his grandmother and grandfather. The novel is brilliant on multiple levels. It is a fascinating study of the travails of an invalid struggling with his own enormous physical sufferings. It is a vivid and accurate retelling of a story of what life war actually life in the frontier in the late nineteenth century. But primarily it is a powerful and overwhelming reflection on the nature of human frailty, love, and the healing power of forgiveness. Although Ward reflects on the marriage of his grandparents, this is actually a surrogate for confronting the tragedies in his own, and whether he will rigidly refuse to forgive his wife for her wrongs against him, or whether he will allow redemption and healing to take place.
The novel has aroused considerable controversy among some feminist writers, for an interesting reason. Stegner himself was a very strong supporter of women's rights (indeed, although he was uncomfortable with the youth movements of the sixties, he remained an old school liberal all his life, with powerful convictions about toleration and acceptance of all people regardless of race, creed, or gender). Stegner became aware of the unpublished letters of the 19th century writer and painter Mary Hallock Foote. He gained permission from a family member to incorporate portions of those letters in a work of fiction, and he did so in ANGLE OF REPOSE, Foote providing the explicit model for Susan Burling Ward. The controversy has rested in whether Stegner used too much of the prose of Mary Hallock Foote in his book. Some have estimated that as much as 10% of the entire text might stem from Foote. My own take is that his use of Foote's letters was far more creative than plagiaristic. For one thing, he didn't so much take the story he tells from Foote's letters as builds a brilliant story around them. Also, some of the details of the novel of greatest import--such as the question of Susan Ward's possible adultery--were not part of Foote's story at all. Moreover, while the letters that Stegner uses are quite good, they do not match the other sections of the book where Stegner writes in his own voice. Stegner is clearly a better prose writer than Foote, and why a better writer would be thought to have need of a lesser one to generate a novel is difficult to explain. Moreover, Foote in no way contributed to the architecture of the novel as a whole, and she obviously played no role in the contemporary sections of the book. Finally, to the degree that Ms. Foote is remembered at all today, it is entirely because of Wallace Stegner. He not only included some of her work in anthologies he did earlier, but elevated part of her story to a central place in this very great novel. Given all this, I'm not sure how Stegner can be justly accused of any wrongdoing.
Regardless of the controversy, this remains not merely one of the greatest novels ever written about the West, but one of the finest American novels of the second half of the twentieth century. Stegner remains a staggeringly underappreciated as a writer. He wrote in a beautiful, distinctive, gorgeous prose that not even his extremely illustrious stable of students (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, Ivan Doig, and many, many others) has been able to match. Edward Abbey said shortly before Stegner's death following an automobile accident that he was the only living American writer deserving of the Nobel Prize, and I believe he was right.
Stegner won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose; even a casual reading of the first half of the book tells you why. It's a big, long, lush, slowly progressing story that weaves the distant past with the near past with the present beautifully and seamlessly.
Superb. Read this one and savor it. Don't rush yourself.