Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose (1971, Penguin Books)

How much can be forgiven?

This is my second Wallace Stegner book; in Crossing to Safety (1987) he explores friendship and the balance of power in that relationship. In Angle of Repose, it’s the marriage relationship that he explores.

The narrator takes us on an exploration of his grandmother’s life–she, Susan Burling, was a gifted east coast artist and illustrator who unexpectedly throws in her lot with a mining engineer, Oliver Ward. His work on frontier mines in the late 1800’s takes them to desolate places in all parts of the West. He shows his devotion by preparing homes for her; she shows hers by staying, bearing children, creating a space that welcomes visitors, creating a place for talk and ideas to flow.

But they are never perfectly suited, and the inevitable comes crashing into their lives, and with it a tragedy, a loss that no one speaks of after it happens.

The couple stays together until old age–but at what cost? Are there things that just can’t be forgiven?

The narrator confronts this question in his own life; we think he is not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Written and set in 1970-ish California, the setting and tone evoke that age so well. The adults are confused and bruised by the changes they’re living through; young people are flailing through uncharted shoals. It’s hard going for one character here, especially; I cringe as she makes choices I’d like her to rethink. Even so, I bow to her courage in trying to create a path where none exists.


Just as I was beginning Angle of Repose, I found Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Cookbook at an Earth Day event. I discovered Taber’s books long ago on a forage through a library’s shelves; she writes about everyday life in a way that celebrates and elevates it. I love her quiet memoirs, and so I was happy to buy her cookbook.

In it, oddly, I learned that Taber’s father, like Oliver Ward in Angle, was a mining engineer, and that she, like the characters in Stegner’s book lived in various parts of the US West and Mexico. Both women–the fictional Susan, the real-life Gladys,–seem to have weathered huge changes in their lives, definitive endings–and worked their ways through to acceptance. Taber’s writing is joyful, I think; I’m not sure the character of Susan Burling ever reached joy. But both women, the real and the created, fiercely demonstrate the importance of family–an interesting, interesting juxtaposition of reads.


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