I picked this book because I read about it on other book blogs, and it always receives rave reviews. It’s best described as a quiet book, where not a lot happens. It’s a book about friendship and relationships. I don’t know if I loved it as much as many do, but it’s definitely a book that’s “staying with me.”
In a nutshell, it’s a story of two couples who meet in the 1930s and remain close friends for years. Larry and Sally Morgan come to Madison to teach at the University of Wisconsin. They’re feeling alone and out of place until they meet Sid and Charity Lang. Sid and Larry are both adjunct professors in the English Department, and both aspiring writers. Where Larry and Sally are quiet, almost invisible, at least as written from Larry’s point of view, Sid and Charity are bigger than life. As a foursome they click – at the time they meet, Sally and Charity are even due to have babies around the same time.
Sid and Charity seem to have it all, but over time it becomes clear they do not. Charity is a difficult character to like; she’s controlling and pushes Sid too hard in his career. Sid wants to write poetry and she’s convinced that poetry will not make him successful. But she’s not a simple one-dimensional character; she’s demanding but also loving. Sid lets her take the lead, and everyone views him as the weaker of the two, but it’s a relationship that makes him happy. Larry and Sally don’t quite know what to make of their relationship but still care for them as friends. Maybe you know people like that?
This book demonstrates a basic fact about writing – it’s hard to write about the positive aspects of friendship and love, but easy to write about the difficult parts. And while there’s no sex and violence in this book, Stegner touches on many of the things that make adult friendships difficult, like differences in money (Sid and Charity have a lot, Larry and Sally have little), differences in career success, differences in family, and differences in personality. These four people are a lot like you and me, and other people we know. The writing is most vivid when it’s about the conflicts between these four people. But when Stegner tries to tell the reader just how close this friendship is, it falls a little flat. But I think that’s true of all writing.
There is a lot of interplay between Stegner as writer and Larry as writer. The characters discuss writing, in blatant references to the book itself. It becomes a book within a book in some ways. At one point Larry is asked why he doesn’t write a book about his friends, and he replies:
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the compulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?
One strange thing about this book is we end up knowing little about Sally and Larry, even though Larry is the narrator, and everything about Sid and Charity. Sally is a little too idealized to be quite human, where Charity has a personality that leaps off the page. Interestingly, even though Sally and Larry end up living most of their lives apart from Sid and Charity, the focus of their life still centers around these friends. We know about their childhoods, their family histories, their intimate thoughts, even though they are not the narrator. Larry, on the other hand, seems a largely passive observer.
Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature. You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.
Stegner’s writing is vivid, and brings as much care to describing the landscape as the characters. Much of the book takes place at Charity Lang’s childhood home at Battell Pond in Vermont. Stegner was a noted conservationist, working with the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations. He even served as an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, during the Kennedy administration.
There are many similarities between Stegner’s life and the lives of these characters. Stegner lived during the same time period as his characters. He taught early in his career at the University of Wisconsin (although he later founded the creative writing department at Stanford). He was married to his wife for 59 years, until his death in 1993 (just six years after the publication of this book). He had only one son, Page Stegner. Also, the introduction to the book talks about Stegner’s difficult relationship with his father, a relationship that sounds similar to the one that drives Sid.
This strikes me as a book that will affect readers differently depending on their age when they read it. It’s a book about four people, not just a husband and wife, who spend a lifetime together. It’s about growing old together, dealing with health problems, careers that don’t go where you hoped they would, and relationships that are sometimes uncomfortable. It’s a slow, quiet book that rolls to a powerful finish. It’s definitely worth reading.