For years I’ve heard my mother-in-law say that Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is the best book she’s ever read — and for years I’ve chosen to read other books.
But this summer, during a long layover in the house where I grew up, I spent the longest nights of the year deep in Stegner’s stirring descriptions of the American West. His feel for the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, Colorado, and Idaho in the late 19th century nearly prompted me to vacate the coast. The novel left me continually uneasy in my chair for other reasons, too. Stegner creates the tragedy of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage with real-to-life perfection. He slowly locks them into a landscape of silence and misunderstanding that’s as unconquerable as the arid territory they’re trying to settle. After I’d finished the book, a friend who’d read it decades ago, told me he still considers it the finest fictional depiction of marriage he’s ever read. I agree.
After Angle of Repose I read Gilead, which I thought was also superlative, but which didn’t hook me in the quite the barbed way I always hope for in a novel. I think I just had a hard time getting inside John Ames’s end-of-life equanimity. With Gilead finished, it was back to Stegner. I began reading Crossing to Safety with a copy checked out from a library near my old home Maine and finished it with a copy borrowed from a library near my new home in South Carolina.
Crossing to Safety, like Angle of Repose, is about marriage, and it reinforces Stegner’s interest in a particular kind of relationship: strong-willed, striving women and the ways they misunderstand their meek husbands. I’d like to know what in his own life put Stegner onto the topic. I also appreciated the opportunity Crossing to Safety provided to talk about the qualities that attract friends to each other, and to consider how being married bears on the way we choose to die.
More recently, I’ve read The Power and the Glory. The finished book, with its many exquisite scenes, is sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be sent back to the library. I’m happy to say that the smells of mule dung and whiskey are still thick in my blood, secret companions like a flask to this holiday season.
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