ANGLE OF REPOSE is the book that won Wallace Stegner the Pulitzer Prize. Although I personally prefer BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN because I think he was clearer in what he wanted the readers to take away from the characters and also clearer on what their lives meant, REPOSE is a great book on its own merits.
REPOSE is the story of history professor Lyman Ward in his late 50’s suffering from a debilitating bone disease which has already cost him one leg. His wife left him some time before and his son is trying to have him put in a retirement home.
Lyman is staying at the home of his late grandparents and as a project has decided to write a historical book tracing the life of his grandmother. The bulk of the book is her life, her travelling out west from New York to Colorado, Mexico, Idaho, and finally Grass Valley, California where Lyman is telling the story and his tale is interspersed with hers.
We learn about her troubled marriage to Lyman’s grandfather who was too trusting and irresponsible and her relationship with another man as well as her relationship with her own children.
Lyman contrasts this with his own life and his unresolved feelings for his wife who left him as soon as got ill.
The term “Angle of Repose” is geological and refers to where debris ends up, where they come to a complete stop and collect. His grandmother found her angle of repose in California although Lyman’s grandfather and she lived separate lives after the incidents which occur earlier in the novel. Has Lyman found his angle of repose? Despite outside interference with Lyman’s independence, we’re left with the idea he has.
I liked the way the plot unfolded here not in normal linear fashion but through the eyes of Lyman as he combs through his grandmother’s correspondence (A lot of the plot is revealed through her letters to a friend back East). I liked the level of detail about the West – How it was settled and how people cheated each other in the process. I found some of the letters based on real correspondence that Stegner “borrowed" from Mary Hallock Foote a bit dull and Lyman’s thoughts on the youth of the 1960’s seem dated now.
Still this is a great book. Perhaps the closest Stegner came to an epic in his distinguished bibliography, the closest he came in prose form to the epic sweep of the West that he often wrote about.