I’m not sure why Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose was never on my radar, particularly considering my interest in recent years with novels of the West. But I had never heard of it until recently, when I read mention on some blog or other (that is the problem with reading so many bookish sites–I lose track of where I hear about things). It was called a classic of Western literature, Stegner’s masterpiece, and so forth. A few days later I happened to spy a copy at the local library book sale, so it seemed fate was telling me to read it.
This is a very, very good book, and perhaps it is Stegner’s masterpiece (it’s another winner of the Pulitzer, 1972), but for various reasons, I am not sure it lives up its laurels. It starts out rather slowly, narrated by Lyman Ward, a retired historian who suffers from an unknown debilitating illness which has left him with an amputated leg and skeletal stiffness. He is confined to a wheelchair and needs help with daily tasks, yet he has retired alone, to his son’s displeasure, in his grandparent’s house in rural Grass Valley, CA. There he has set a task for himself to sort through his grandmother’s letters and to reconstruct the remarkable and historic path his grandparents cut through the mid-1800’s West in the early years of their marriage. His grandparents’ marriage suffered a series of disappointments and great tragedies (no spoilers) that led them to live out their remaining years at an “angle of repose” rather than in a fully engaged and loving relationship. Lyman’s grandfather, whom he adored, was an engineer. The titular phrase refers to the engineering concept of the steepest angle at which loose matter can be piled before it slips down the slope. Lyman’s own marriage has suffered its own disappointments (he is estranged from his wife), and it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is searching not only to understand how his grandparents arrived at this angle themselves, but also how he might resolve his own emotional conflict about his ex-wife. Continue reading