I first saw this book reviewed on the First Tuesday Book Club on the ABC a few months ago. What made me notice it was that every person on the discussion panel had really loved it. Anyone who has watched the show knows that that is a bit unusual.
It's taken me a while to get hold of a copy to read. Our local library didn't have a copy at the time it was on the TV show, but said it was on order. And there were lots of reserves placed on it for when it arrived. The library didn't have any of his other books that I could read while I was waiting.
It's a book that's distinctive in the "ordinariness" of the plot, nothing too dramatic, just the story of two couples who become friends during the Depression years when the two husbands are working together in the English department at the University of Wisconsin and how their friendship develops over many years. The narrator, Larry, is the husband in one of the couples and is writing the book as a reflection on their friendship, as they have gathered together again in their older age because Charity, the wife in the other couple, is about to die from cancer.
Although there's not too much plot to speak of, the rich descriptions of the couples and their friendship, and the observations Stegner makes, reflecting on both self and the nature of relationships, are beautifully written. This is what made the book so enjoyable for me, the First Tuesday Book clubbers described it as a book about "living a worthy life" and also about "dying a good death" which really summed it up quite well. Of course, as Christians, we know that living a worthy life is about much much more than just "the passion we all (have) to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world....about how we could contribute." (p.11). But I think this quote is a great description of the way we think about life in the world.
Another fantastic description that stood out to me was this one (p.191):
"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."
That one reminded me of that verse in Mark's Gospel where it talks about no one knowing the day or the hour except for the Father. And again, it was such a vivid picture of how the world works.
If you're a person who loves lots of action, adventure and escapism in your fiction reading, this probably isn't the book for you. But if you love good character development and how people relate to one another in a long term marriage and in friendships, then it's a beautiful book to read. One review I read of it on Goodreads described it as "the anti-Gatsby." I liked that. No affairs or adulterous relationships, no excessive consumption and wastage, no violence, but just a description of ordinary lives impacted upon by joy, sorrow, laughter, disappointment, illness and the myriad of other experiences that we encounter over the course of many years.
Definitely worth a read. I am in the middle of reading it for a second time before I have to take it back to the library on Monday for the next person in the reservation queue. And then I think I'd like to read it again in a few years time.