I vaguely remembered having read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner years ago, and that it had been good. I thought that might have been because it had a happy ending. Not exactly.
The story is about the narrator’s grandparents, with a counterplot about the narrator’s own life. His grandmother had been an Eastern intellectual, a writer and artist, and intially attracted to a magazine editor whom her best friend married. Her husband is intelligent enough, a mining engineer enamoured of the Western frontier, but not terribly articulate. They’re different kinds of people, but not so dcessful marriage. might not be able to have a successful marriage. That’s if things went well. But they didn’t.
They start out at one mine, her husband quits the job in disagreement with management, he takes several other jobs, but they don’t work out either. Finally he begins a project that sparks his imagination: a large-scale irrigation project in Idaho. But this one also doesn’t work out. Financing fails, so there are periods in which he and his team are able to work, and periods when they can’t. Meanwhile, his wife is supporting the family with writings and drawings.
They’re a 19th century couple, though they live well into the 20th century, and having to be supported by his wife doesn’t sit well with the husband, Oliver Ward. Susan, the wife, would prefer it not be that way either, but does what she has to do to support the family.
So part of teh question of the book is, what happens when you encounter a long streak of bad luck? This theme is of some interest to me, as my own family is undergoing something similar right now. But this fictional (though the book reads as if Stegner might be writing about actual relatives) couple has a streak of bad luck lasting for years. Eventually it ends in disaster.
One of Susan’s husband’s friends, who has worked with her husband for years, has fallen in love with her. She can’t help having feelings in return. The narrator emphasizes that all three were honorable and responsible people with high standards, which he contrasts with the hippie era (he claims to be writing in 1967, though the book was published several years later). One day Susan and her husband’s friend meet away from the others. She’s brought her youngest daughter along, but in distraction, fails to keep an eye on her. The child runs away, falls into the nearby river and drowns. They try to revive her, without success.
What would anyone do in that situation? After the funeral the wife almost immediately leaves for the East with her son, to put him into a private high school. She doesn’t see him again for 15 years. She considers asking her best friend and editor husband for a job, but decides not to pursue that. She heads west again, helping a friend teach a school. She’s separated from her husband for several years until he finds steady work at a mine in California, where she joins him.
The narrator is an aging man himself, with health problems. He has a disease which has deposited too much calcium into his bones, so that he can no longer turn his neck. He’s also had a leg amputated, though he doesn’t say why. This has left him able to read and write, but to do little else. He has to rely on others for care, because he’s unable to care for himself.
It also emerges that his wife had left him when he was recovering from the amputation. He’s not sure exactly why she did, but he feels bitter and vengeful towards her.
A young woman, something of a hippie, helps him during the summer when he’s living in his grandparents’ old house in an isolated area, and provides a different viewpoint. She thinks his grandparents, maybe his grandmother in particular, had sexual hangups. The narrator disagrees.
His grandparents lived in a different era, with different expectations. Living on the Western frontier in particular, they were much more familiar with physical hardship than we are today. Having babies born at home, perhaps without medical help, for instance. And no indoor plumbing, for another instance. For them, sex was a private matter, and not something to be advertised or overly free with. It was a matter of deep feeling. Sex is either holy or unholy, says the narrator. If the unholy is indulged in, it can poison the whole of life.
The three protagonists of the book see it that way. Her husband’s friend shows his feeling about it by committing suicide a few days after the little girl’s death. The wife shows it by rushing her son to the East coast, considering a job with her friend and the magazine editor, but rejecting that option. Was it that she didn’t want to have to explain what had happened, or that she felt unworthy, or something else? The narrator says that she was a survivor, eventually living 91 years, so she didn’t take the “easy” way out of suicide. What she did instead was rejoin her husband a few years after their separation, and live with him for the rest of their lives.
The narrator remembers loving both of them, but especially his grandfather, who always made him feel comfortable. But he never remembers his grandfather showing any affection to his grandmother. He didn’t mistreat her. He respected her, and she respected him.
But he was a man, the narrator says, who expected little from humans in general. He was easily taken advantage of, and didn’t let it bother him much. But some few people he trusted absolutely, and one of those people was his wife. When he felt he had been betrayed by her, he was unable to forget or forgive.
There’s no knowing if his wife and best friend ever had sex together, but they had at least been tempted. His wife had understood that,agreed with his assessment, and had made the decision to continue living with him, hoping to expiate what she’d done. She lived more than the second half of her life with him, but they were never able to get beyond the trauma that had shattered their marriage.
Near the end of the book, the author has a vivid dream about his own wife, and about the characters he’s been living with during the summer. He ends the book by saying that he has to discover if he has the courage to be a bigger man than his grandfather was.