Book Review of Angle of Repose (Contemporary American Fiction)

Angle of Repose (Contemporary American Fiction)
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Helpful Score: 2


The title of this complex novel about a marriage between two unlikely persons intrigued me from the first. "The angle of repose" is an engineering term, and as I understand it (being no engineer) it has to do with the angle at which bulky materials, like soil, finally settle and come to rest after being dumped onto a surface. Aside from also being a wonderful image, the title also gives the reader a clue about the way the novel will end -- after years and years of struggling to come to terms with the challenges of a marriage filled with conflicting priorities, the protagonist finally is able to come to an uneasy peace with it. There are actually two protagonists in this story, each dealing with difficult marriages, each finally arriving at their own angles of repose: Lyman Ward, crippled with a disease that has left him totally dependent on others to care for him, has come back to his Grandparents home to sort through papers and correspondence in order to piece together the details of their tumultuous life together. That's how we meet the other protagonist, Susan Burling Ward a lively and talented artist from the East who is used to living in an Edith Wharton kind of world until she meets and marries Oliver Ward,an ambitious mining engineer whose career depends on being able to relocate from one mining camp to another all along the great Western frontier. One of the things I enjoyed about this book was the interplay between fact (what Lyman was able to discover through newspaper clippings and published accounts of what actually was going on) and conjecture (based on what he inferred when reading between the lines of his grandmother's letters.) As he says "What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where i knew them. That's where the interest is. That's where the meaning will be if I find any." The fact that he does find meaning, and that it is so relevant to him in terms of his own crumbling marriage makes this a particularly good novel. Stegner does a masterful job of weaving together plot lines, and creating vivid multidimensional characters. The details he provides about aspects of the American West in the 19th century give the reader a glimpse into an especially rich and colorful part of our history. But it is the insights into marriage that I feel make this such a brilliant novel. Stegner has beautifully captured the heartbreaking complexity of a marriage between two people whose deep love for each other ends up diminishing them both.