by Wallace Stegner
First sentence: “Floating upward through a confusing of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.”
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I spent a good portion of the novel trying to figure out how to describe it. And what I came up with was: thoughtful. It was a thoughtfully written work, one that made me thoughtful as I read it.
It’s the story of two couples in the 1930s. The men — Sid and Larry — are both English PhDs, trying to make it in academia. Their wives — Charity and Sally — are instant friends when they meet. It follows their friendship and lives through ups and downs for years, up until the time of Charity’s death. It’s told from Larry’s point of view, and while I intellectually know it’s not autobiographical, I never could shake that feeling that Stegner was telling, somehow, his story. Because, as Larry points out near the end, this isn’t your typical novel.
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?
They aren’t here. What we get is a thoughtful book, a reflection on people — though in the end, I was unsure if it was really about all of them, and not solely Charity’s story — on relationships, on marriage, on work (especially in academia; there was much I recognized there). It was beautifully written, mostly in flashbacks; descriptive enough that I could picture the Vermont woods even though I’ve never been to that part of the country, and yet not overly flowery in its language. Stegner has a poet’s sensibility for choosing the right word for the right circumstance in order to get across a particular feeling. (My vocabulary expanded while reading this. Honestly.)
It’s not flashy and loud, and not much happens. But it moved me to tears and to think and reflect on how I’m interacting with those around me; I saw much to much of myself in Charity, and I’m not sure that’s always a good thing. As I said before: it’s a thoughtful book. And I’m happy to finally have read some Stegner; he’s an excellent writer.