“Angle of Repose” is Wallace Stegner’s final novel and his most ambitious fictional work. It is the story of an artistic and cultivated woman, Susan Burling Ward, who gives up her budding career as a literary illustrator in the East to become the wife of a young mining engineer, moving into the American West of the 1880’s. Published and honored in 1972 with the Pulitzer Prize, it seems even more relevant today in its depiction of a gifted young woman, wife and mother, who struggles against the prevailing notion of her time to allow her dreams to be secondary to those of her husband’s, to follow, not lead, in their relationship. To complicate this relationship even further, she becomes the love/adoration object of a younger would-be suitor, who is her husband Oliver’s chief assistant. The story takes place over Susan Ward’s entire mature lifetime, but it concentrates heavily on the earlier years of her marriage, told mostly in letters to her Eastern lifelong friend, Augusta.
Actually, this is a story within a story. The narrator, Lyman Ward, ex-professor of history, now retired to the family home in Southern California with a permanent leg injury, is Susan’s grandson, reconstructing her story through her letters, art work, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia of her era. Lyman is a sharp-tongued, tough old guy, who stands in stark contrast to his lovely, artistic grandmother and the artsy, literary friends she has left behind in the East. He is also evidently much more like his taciturn father and non-expressive grandfather, Oliver Ward—an engineering genius ahead of his time, though obviously rarely in tune with his highly expressive wife. This was clearly a marriage and attraction of opposites, and therein lies much of the conflict and tension within the story, though it is slow to build.
I would say this is one of the problematic areas of this novel: it takes us from place to place to place, all beautifully and authentically rendered, but redundant in story telling: Oliver gets a promising job in the West, Susan reluctantly follows him, hopeful and ambitious for them, but something inevitably goes wrong, so they must start all over again in a new location, foretelling again the same essential story, ultimately for about seven or eight times. The only real blip in all this is Susan’s admirer and would-be suitor, Frank, though there is a time, earlier in the story, when the reader could posit a romance of sorts between herself and her best friend, Augusta. We have approximately five hundred pages of this before the story takes off like an out-of-control locomotive engine that crashes to a tragic denouement. I could write an entire article on the last chapter, which, in my opinion, is a mess, but I won’t.
This is an important and worthwhile book by a fine writer, and should you choose to read it, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you!