Angle of Repose

Lately I’ve been diving back into classics and especially focusing on novels that help me figure out more about people. People are messy, difficult, and strange, to be honest, but so many novelists help open up what it means to be human to me, in ways I often need to see. That’s why I went back to Dickens (and I have more on my kindle to read by him) and it’s why I picked up Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.

Stegner won the Pulitzer for this book in 1971 when it was published and after finishing it, I understand why. At its heart, it’s a novel about marriage and how disappointment, failure, and change are handled over the years. Susan and Oliver Ward marry in the 1870s and the book follows them closely through 1890, as their grandson is researching and writing a book about their lives. Susan, an artist, marries Oliver even though her family and closest friends don’t believe it’s a good match. And she follows him west as he tries over and over to make it as an engineer.

But the story hinges so much on the expectations of Susan, what she thinks should be done in life, how life should be lived, and how in the western US of the late 19th century, her east coast expectations may not be able to be met. And as the years wear on, as things don’t go well, Susan is increasingly unhappy. I learned a timely lesson from her; that expectations can be dangerous and that how you react to failures and disappointments is so very important.

This is a story about people, about how humans are so messy, and about how we aren’t able to let go of the past. It’s quite beautiful and I’ll be thinking about some aspects of the characters for a while yet.