Sunday, August 2, 2009

Book Review: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

I don't know how to do this other than as a sprawling, messy, off-in-all-directions thing. I can't do book reviews like Emily, who has her own little New York Times thingy going on at Edge of the Page. I remember this one professor I had for a few courses -- he was French, and big and bearish with spiky black hair and a beard, and it always seemed to me that he carried this towering body of knowledge around right on top of his head, and all he had to do was reach up and pluck out a few facts and an allusion or two, and there was another fucking brilliant off-the-cuff insight. In contrast, I always felt like I had a much smaller body of knowledge, and it was all tucked away in my pockets or left on my dresser at home, so I was always saying something like "well, it's like the goat in the desert and... wait!... something about Flaubert and feet, or everybody dreaming about Zeus and then walking funny..." I guess there's a good reason why I ended up writing about playdough recipes rather than Melville.

Anyway, Crossing to Safety. My brother-in-law recommended it. Highly. Which didn't make me think I wouldn't like it, but makes me concerned that I won't get it in the right way and then my brother-in-law will stop talking to me and it will cause a rift in the family and I'll never be able to see my nephew again. And for the first few pages, I didn't get it. It seemed very seventies. A new professor starting a teaching job at a midwest university, a beatific, pregnant, insanely supportive wife... I could see it as a movie with a young Dustin Hoffman. Even the cover image, a dirt road between rows of blazing fall trees, was only waiting for the professors in matching harvest-coloured tweed.

But that was only the first few pages. The story actually takes place in the mid-thirties. And what is it a story about? The jacket says things like "love and loyalty" and "steadfastness and fidelity" and "several beautifully rendered American landscapes". When I ask which story it is all I get is a voice saying "this one". It's about two couples, one relatively poor, one relatively rich, who meet at a crucial point in their lives and become lifelong friends. The rich friends are dynamic, intelligent, and generous to a degree that strains all credibility. The poor couple is sweet, genuine and accepts the largesse of the rich couple with gratitude and graciousness. The plot twists do not consist of adulterous partner-swapping or war-time catastrophes, but of the small vagaries of fate that skew the courses of our lives, and how differences in character shape how people react to those changes of course. What would be, in another story, a character flaw mentioned in passing becomes, in Stegner's hands, elevated to the level of Greek tragedy.

Stegner poses the question of how much honesty can be borne by a marriage, or a friendship. Is equality a necessity, or possible, or even desirable? Charity Lang is a wonderful character -- someone you want to know, and at the same time, someone who fully illustrates my conviction that nothing is as terrifying as someone who is certain about things.

Sometimes it makes me sad how the lives of people, even fictional people, can be contained within the pages of a single book. There is definitely sadness here, but it's the sadness you feel when things end more or less the way they should, the way you expected them to, as well as possible.

I worked at a small independent bookstore in Toronto about thirteen years ago, for a little over a year between finishing my Master's and moving to Ottawa. There was a book club doing this book, so we sold a dozen of them at one point. One of the women I worked with always said 'Stenger' instead of 'Stegner', and this made me crazy. I kept meaning to read it, but I don't think I ever even read the jacket copy. It would have been interesting to read it then, having just been married, and again now, with a few more years of marriage, and a clearer picture of how complicated it can be for a married couple to be close friends with another married couple.

I like a good anti-hero as much as the next person. But sometimes it's nice to feel that an author is sympathetic to his characters -- that he sees them clearly, but forgives them, and loves them anyway. Like a really good friend.

I recommend it. Highly.

43 comments:

edgeofthepage said...

i think you did a much better job than your French prof would have.

Magpie said...

"Sometimes it makes me sad how the lives of people, even fictional people, can be contained within the pages of a single book." Such a true statement - I know that feeling well.

I wanted to reply to your comment on my blog, but I couldn't find an email address. I think I'd like it if you called me a bad-ass nut-job :).

NoisyBluebird said...

Sold. I'm going to go pick it up tomorrow. :)

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