it doesn't surprise that this book won the pulitzer prize. it's an ambitious novel, cleverly constructed, effectively blending life and fiction, containing some beautiful sentences.
this is the story of lyman ward, a historian who has gone into retirement, afflicted by a bone disease that has resulted in the amputation of his right leg, living alone in the house that was his grandparents, and it is also about his grandmother, susan burling ward, an artist and writer, who moved from the east with her engineer husband, oliver, to the western frontier. we are shunted back and forth in time, from lyman in his present (1970), to the depiction of susan's life in a biography he is creating about her, and also to her letters to her first love and best friend, augusta (drake) hudson.
it behooves me to acknowledge that stegner did not write the wonderful letters between susan and augusta. with names and other personal details changed, these are in fact real letters written to helen (dekay) gilder, the source material for the novel he alludes to in the acknowledgement at the beginning, some of which were published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote. between the disclaimer and how i felt when reading these letters, i thought they didn't seem his, and on doing a quick web search discovered the existence of mrs. foote. The basic details seem to be these: stegner asked for permission to use the letters, was given permission by family members, except that one planned to publish the letters in their entirety, and so did not want him to publicly acknowledge them. the disclaimer at the beginning of the novel was hit upon, but people later said he was wrong to use them wholesale without proper credit, and that, furthermore, he had defamed the character of mrs. foote when his fictionalization diverged from her true life. as far at that goes, i can see no difficulty with the second point: he quite plainly states he is using this life as a model for his story, that is not a "family history". as to the first? well, that one's a little tougher. ideally he would have recreated the letters, or referenced them but it doesn't appear to me that this was done maliciously, but only to accede to the wishes of the heirs. as it stands, i think their use only underscores the feat of engineering that is this novel's construction, as they serve as the backbone to the two imagined tales refracted from them to the stories of lyman and his grandmother.
the three narrative ropes are braided together masterfully and the echoes of the grandmother he depicts are often found in his perspective of his own time. lyman sees no joy in his future and is determined to cast his eyes back to the past, to the story of his grandparents, to blot out his own life. when he returns us to his grandparents' story, each time i am grateful to be away from him, from his pain and frustration, because despite the anxieties in the life of susan and oliver, these accounts are expansive, gorgeous at times, describing the places and adventures and misadventures of their search for a place where both of them can find balance, that angle of repose that gives the book its title.
why only three stars? admittedly, there is a lot to admire in this book but as beautifully constructed as it is, i felt removed from the characters. i do not say that they weren't well drawn, or that i didn't like any of them (oliver ward is the best of these people -- and it's clear that stegner wants you to know it) but i felt they kept me out, and that lyman (and stegner's) admiration for the stoic, and emotionally distant kept me from fully embracing them. in that respect, i feel it is a very WASP-y novel, and these books always seem to leave me on the outside looking in.
things that really irritated me:
- lyman's repeated use of the german phrase "ohne bustenhalter" when talking about shelley, the daughter of his caregiver ada, and short-term secretary. i get it: lyman's inhibited sexuality clashes with the free-wheeling era in which he currently lives, and it's probably easier for him to fixate on a woman's braless breasts in another language. maybe i am echoing shelley's part in questioning the biography he is writing for its sexual inhibition as i chafe against this phrase. maybe stegner wants to piss me off with this, i don't know.
- the ending of lyman's story. i do not find fault with the final paragraph, but the events immediately preceding it. what serves as the climax seems an impatient clutching of loose ends fashioned into a rough knot. i know the novel is long but this seemed like a cop out.
what i really liked best about this book were all the questions i ended up having; there is so much to consider in the fact of it, the overlap, the deconstruction of its fiction and realism: how the letters drove the book in fiction and in life; how shelley questions lyman's book as it unfolds inside the book i was reading; how much of any life has its truth revealed to anyone outside of that person's private thoughts. while i resist the ending, i accept the sum of its parts, and the reflection of the writer's craft that is perhaps its greatest revelation.