September 8, 2009
Finishing a book is like ending a love affair; the longer it’s been a part of your life, the harder it is to close the covers and walk away. You regret the parts that you read too quickly. In your eagerness to tick off pages and find out what happened next you didn’t always appreciate the elegance of the prose. You envy the next reader, the one who gets to discover the book for the first time. She will no doubt get it right.
I recently finished Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, which clocked in at almost 600 pages and came in the unglamorous package of a frayed hardcover library book. There was no book jacket, no graphic design, and no testimonials from other writers. I took it out in mid-February and I finished it in late June. I read the book at the stately pace of a Victorian lady, reading a chapter in bed in the morning while my husband made breakfast. As a college professor, I’m allowed to check books out for an entire year. Otherwise I would have racked up a small fortune in library fines once I had exhausted all the legitimate renewals.
All novels involve entering another life, but this is particularly true of Angle of Repose, in which the narrator attempts to capture the entirety of his Victorian grandmother’s life, or at least the entirety of his grandparents’ marriage. Susan Burns Ward, a Hudson Valley debutante, writer and illustrator, is exiled to the West when she chooses, in her late twenties, to marry one of the last available men in her circle, a mining engineer. The book begins with the girlish hopes of its protagonist, moves on to womanly disappointments, and ends with an unexpectedly tragic final turn. The reader travels with the couple to Colorado, Idaho, Mexico, and, finally, Northern California.
While Susan pines for her childhood friend Augusta, who remains in New York City, we marvel at the implicit real estate opportunities. What must it have been like to be in California before Hollywood and Silicon Valley? It crosses our 21st century minds that Susan is in love with Augusta, but it doesn’t seem to cross hers. We are convincingly plunked into another era where people don’t give voice to such things. Young children are left with East Coast relatives for yearlong stretches. Older sons are shipped off to East Coast boarding schools. I only learned that there was an extramarital affair percolating when I looked up the opaque title in an on-line literary encyclopedia. The emotions are so repressed that it’s even possible for the reader to miss them.
The narrator himself, whom one suspects of being a stand-in for the writer, wrestles with the length of the book. By page 440 he realizes that he’s only gotten as far as his grandmother’s 42nd year when she’d lived to 91. But that was the year in which the defining act of Susan Ward’s life took place, when she made a fatal choice that led to a tragic accident which doomed her to marital purgatory.
As I neared the end of Angle of Repose, I was later and later to breakfast. For the first time I took the cumbersome book out of the house, although it added considerable heft to my beach bag. I expected to feel a great sense of accomplishment when I finished the book, but instead I felt lost, grief-stricken. It was a mixture of sadness for Susan Ward and a prickle of fear that I might yet ruin my own life—but mostly I wanted to be back in the middle of that book.
I know there are other books, maybe even better books, out there. I started Mary Gaitskill’s new collection of stories but it only made me miss Susan Ward’s discretion. In Angle of Repose, marital infidelity was something to be staved off, whereas Gaitskill’s heroines are all too eager to cede their sexual booty. Susan Ward gives over to passion once in her life (maybe, we’re not sure) and is punished swiftly, and in the worst possible way.
I know there are other Wallace Stegner books to read, but that’s like somebody suggesting you get a new puppy when your dog of fifteen years has just died. It might be the same breed—but it’s not your dog. Or, to honor the metaphor we began with, it’s like people suggesting that you “get back out there” the day after you’ve ended a long-term relationship.
I’ve lately begun a backwards process of buying books after I’ve read the library copies. It helps me through the grieving process to know that it’s still there on the shelf if I need it. In this way, important books stay with me, literally and figuratively. Like the people who pass through our lives, the books become part of who we are.
Wendy MacLeod is the James E. Michael Playwright in Residence at Kenyon College. Her play The House of Yes is now a Miramax film. She has been published in the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, and POETRY magazine.