Angle of Repose – Book Review

angleofrepose.jpg What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. 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. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any. -From Angle of Repose, page 199-

Lyman Ward, a retired history professor and writer, returns to his grandparent’s home in Grass Valley, California – wheelchair bound and facing a progressive, crippling bone disease. His intent is to research his grandmother’s life through the news clippings and letters of her past. To write her story, Ward must fill in gaps, imagine conversations, and uncover the truths which lie hidden in Susan Burling Ward’s history. During this one hot, dry summer in a quest to know his grandmother,  he will discover the meaning beneath the shadows of his own life.

Wallace Stegner penned Angle of Repose in 1971 for which he won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.  The novel – said to be his masterpiece – connects two points in American history…that of the late nineteenth century West with that of the turbulent, sometimes self-indulgent Vietnam era.  Stegner creates complex and intriguing characters. Susan Burling (based on the historical figure of Mary Hallock Foote – a nineteenth century writer and illustrator) becomes an unlikely pioneer when she marries the quiet and ambitious dreamer Oliver Ward. Their adventures in mining camps and the vast wilderness of Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and California create a backdrop of unbelievable beauty and isolation from which their lives unfold.

She guided her horse through willows and alders and runted birches, leaned and weaved until the brush ended and she broke into the open. She was at the edge of a meadow miles long, not a tree in it except for the wriggling line that marked the course of the Lake Fork. Stirrup-high grass flowed and flawed in the wind, and its motion revealed and hid and revealed again streaks and splashes of flowers-rust of paintbrush, blue of pentstemon, yellow of buttercups, scarlet of gilia, blue-tinged white of columbines. All around, rimming the valley, bare peaks patched with snow looked down from above the scalloped curve of timberline. -From Angle of Repose, page 237-

Angle of Repose is not simply an historical novel. It explores the idea of identity and how the past often intersects the present. When Lyman Ward explores his grandmother’s story, he  is really seeking to find understanding in his own life.

Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t completely comprehend. – From Angle of Repose, page 5-

Stegner’s prose is alluring, filled with gorgeous descriptions which  engage the reader’s senses. His characters are bigger than life, but carry real flaws which allow the reader to identify with them; to nod in understanding; to empathize with their torments and cheer for their successes. I can understand why Angle of Repose is lauded, why it captured the Pulitzer and why readers are quick to recommend it. I found myself completely immersed in the lives of Susan, Oliver and Lyman Ward and I was sad to turn the last page of this sprawling and satisfying novel.

Highly recommended; a must read; rated 5/5.

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    • Jill on April 17, 2008 at 16:19

    I really, really want to read this one, especially after your review!

  1. I read this about ten years ago and just loved it. It’s on my re-read list. Great review, Wendy.

    • Wendy on April 18, 2008 at 08:22

    Jill: Oh, don’t wait – I can’t believe I waited so long to read a Stegner novel. I now want to read ALL his books!

    Terri: Thanks Terri. This is just such a big, American saga – loved it, loved it. I can see myself re-reading it at some point. It is right up there with Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.

  2. Slowly but surely I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer winners (although not necessarily in order). This sounds worth moving up the pile. Thank you.

    • Teddy on April 18, 2008 at 19:40

    Excellent Review Wendy! You just added another one to my TBR.

  3. Great review!

    I loved this book too. Like you I was completely immersed in it and didn’t want it to end. Definitely a book to re-read!

    • Wendy on April 19, 2008 at 09:15

    Ann: It is definitely worth moving up!

    Teddy: Thanks 🙂 I’ve been adding to your pile a lot lately *hee hee*

    BooksPlease: Thanks! Have you read other Stegner novels? I am looking forward to reading more of his work now that I’ve read this one.

  4. A wonderful review of one of my all time favorite books. Now I want to read it again 🙂

  5. I’ve had this book on the shelf for a couple of years now always intending to read it but haven’t had the desire. You may have changed that!

    • Sherry on April 19, 2008 at 15:50

    OK you talked me into it.

  6. I loved this book and was just thinking the other day I’d like to re-read it. I also loved Stegner’s Crossing to Safety.

    • Wendy on April 20, 2008 at 08:49

    RR: I can see why it i your all-time favorite!

    Natasha: Oh, you should read it sooner rather than later. I had it sitting on my shelf for a long time too…it just seemed like a chunky, long book which I never felt inspired to read; now I wish I hadn’t waited so long!

    Sherry: Good 🙂

    Smallworld: Good to hear you loved Crossing to Safety!

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