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Angle of Repose ()

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West (1)

This 1971 Pulitzer Prize Winner tells the story of the first 14 years of marriage of one of the couples who built the American West. Lyman Ward is a 58 year old professional historian. He's suffered through the loss of a leg and the flight of his wife of 25 years & now he's returned to his family homestead, Zodiac Cottage in Grass Valley, CA to write the biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a minor author and artist of the West. She came from the East in 1876 to be with her new husband Oliver Ward, a mining engineer. Lyman proceeds to chronicle their lives until disaster strikes the couple & essentially ends the marriage, although they stay together for another 50 years, having attained an "Angle of Repose".

I had two big problems with this book, which is essentially a dandified Michener. The first is that I hated Lyman Ward, the narrator. Perhaps it is a function of writing in the early seventies, the great wasteland in American culture, but the lives, concerns and conversations of Lyman and the people around him are excruciating. The second problem was that I thought Susan Burling Ward deserved to be horsewhipped. She spends the first part of the book madly in love with one of her girlfriends and then falls in love with her husband's best friend. Meanwhile, she meddles in Oliver's career choices repeatedly & then agonizes over the dead ends that career runs into time and again.

I'd give this one an extremely qualified recommendation & suspect it would appeal more to women.


Grade: (C)


You said the second problem you had with the book was how dislikable the main woman character is. Why is that a problem? Obviously Stegner meant her to be dislikable and was very successful at it. There is no law that a character has to be likable. I consider this one of the finest books I've ever read.

- judsta

- Feb-12-2006, 23:50


this has been rated one of the 100 finest English language novels of the 20th century - and rightfully so. The intent of the author is to unravel the starcrossed union of two late 19th century archtypes. One is a woman steeped in the culture of 19th century Northeastern America; Emerson, Alcott; James; and on and on. Not to mention her stable Quaker upbringing and Victorian femininity. She mismatches with a western adventurer, miner, dreamer, etc. The story of their love, loss and disappointment (as well as that of the author's) along with the huge backdrop of the exploitation of the American frontier, I found to be truly compelling. To say that she should be "horsewhipped" for her feeling of loss and homesickness reveals your own late 20th century cynicism for 19th century mores. Ones, I might add, that brought about significantly more works of fine art than any of our TV generation is producing today.

- Bill Strojny

- Jul-10-2003, 04:18


I agree with your assessment of this book. I have read to the part where Susan returns for the first time to the east to find out her friend Augusta has departed abroad. Until this point I can't say any of the characters or their stories touch me. I did feel mildly sorry for Susan, whom I think is an idiot, for her disappointment. But given her interests, her love of superficiality, I cannot understand what she is doing with Oliver, whom I think deserves better than the twit she is.

I did not however, enjoy your remark that it is a book that would appeal more to women. I could say that Blook Meridian by Carmac McCarthy would appeal more to men, but I won't because the quality of the writing is so exceptional that I won't gender it.

- Zandra Ellis

- Dec-06-2002, 11:26