I have to admit that I had never heard of Wallace Stegner before I picked up this book in a recent library booksale. I bought it purely because it’s a Penguin Classic so I thought it would be interesting. I haven’t read any reviews of the book at all and I think that the whole thing was so close to a lot of my life experiences that I’m really unable to be detached from it. It’s a really well written book, as you would expect from a Pullitzer prize winner.
For me it was quite an annoying and uncomfortable read at times and that was due entirely to the character of Charity Lang whom I really, really disliked intensely so it wasn’t a book which I was desperate to get back to whenever I put it down.
It’s the story of two marriages from the 1930s when they were almost newly weds and the two couples become friends when they meet at the University of Wisconsin where the husbands are working. University politics hasn’t changed over the years, it was still a murky, distasteful business when I was in almost exactly the same situation with my husband in the late 1970s.
Anyway Charity and Sid Lang cling to the new arrivals Sally and Larry Morgan like they’re a life raft, almost as soon as they meet and from my experience that’s always a sign of an unhealthy marriage so it rang alarm bells. There’s always a problem in a relationship when they want to spend a lot of time with other people rather than just being happy in their own compmany. Obviously you have to have give and take in any marriage but Charity was only interested in taking – and the only things she gave were orders. Oh and Sid’s money of course. Charity really wasn’t interested in Sid until she realised that he was ‘as rich as Croesus.‘
Sally is bedazzled by Charity mainly because Charity comes from an old, large, well-heeled American family which is the opposite from Sally’s situation as a young woman from a poor Greek family who are all dead. Charity fills Sally’s need for friends and family and so she overlooks the fact that Charity is a truly ghastly woman who has to be right about everything, even although she’s invariably wrong, she won’t ever admit to it and just about all the bad things which happen in the book are caused by Charity.
The absolutely worst thing though is the way Charity treats Sid. He was never going to set the heather on fire but Charity had great expectations for him and when things didn’t go to her plan, which was entirely her fault for being arrogant and directing what Sid should write papers on to get tenure, and of course she was wrong – she didn’t dust herself down and get on with life the way the rest of us would. Charity ended up having a nervous break-down and spent two months in hospital. Those so-called strong women usually can’t cope with life when they don’t get their own way as it happens to them so seldom.
In the end it’s Larry who saves Sid by getting him a job at another university. The book is written from Larry’s perspective but long before it becomes clear that Larry isn’t a fan of Charity I was gnashing my teeth as she was praised to the sky while she was embarking on her mission of festooning herself with loads of kids which she thought it was a good idea to neglect. Just think, all those other lives for her to control, bully and dominate.
I’m sure you’ll realise that I have had close contact with just such a woman in the past and it isn’t fun having to stand by and watch someone humiliate and emasculate her husband in public, hen-pecked doesn’t come close to describing it. The damage done to family members by such a mother is never healed.
In the book Charity decides to continue to control her childrens’ lives from the grave via her will and even draws up a list of women which Sid has to choose a new wife from as apparently he can’t cope on his own!
Happily I can tell you exactly what happens in such a case. The widower takes up a new pastime, such as bowls. Meets up with all the old boys that he went to school with. Joins a club for local businessmen and goes on holiday abroad with them three or four times a year and really enjoys himself. Has two more grandsons presented to him by the members of the family who had watched the older grandchildren being scarred by Granny’s bad behaviour.
Thinks for himself for the first time in years!
Well I did tell you that I was unable to be detached from it, but it is a good book!