I read Crossing to Safety last summer and liked it quite a bit (actually started a fairly heated discussion in book club because I liked Charity and no one else did) and so when I saw this on my library's ebook browse shelf I picked it up.
Overall there are some great turns of phrase (quotes below), it was a compelling and very entertaining character piece, and I loved the layering. I am a great fan of the epistolary novel (don't find enough of them) and I thought that the way that this was a history (including lots of letters) within a novel was well done. Once again (as in Crossing to Safety) we have a very strong female character coupled with a physically strong (but less motivated) male.
I would have given it 5 stars, except I didn't like the ending. You could see the parallel between Lyman's marriage and Oliver's marriage (those evil Jezebel straying women) throughout without the dramatic dream at the end. Lyman spends a lot of time degrading Rodman's sociological thoughts and promoting history, BUT in the end he can't help giving us an overdone psychological analysis of both himself and Susan. He admits several times throughout that he is forced to interpolate details (obviously what grand kid knows anything about his grandparents' early love and relationship), some of which come from Susan's extensive correspondence and others of which are completely fictitious. I find it hard to believe some of the early story, though, given Lyman's note at the end that he never saw Susan and Oliver touch (let along hug or kiss or show any affection).
I was also slightly disappointed that we never really found out what caused Lyman's illness/disfigurement/amputation. He does say he was sick (as opposed to having been in some accident) and maybe there is a disease that this closely resembles and I am just not knowledgeable enough to recognize, but I would have liked some more specifics about how he ended up in this state.
That's it for my complaints...I have below some great quotes with comments for each:
"The sound of anything coming at you--a train, say, or the future--has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away." I know Doppler Effect only from the weather service; this was an interesting concept and oh so true...much more elegant than "hindsight is 20/20".
"She helps her grotesque doll to stand up..." I loved the bathroom scene where Ada gives him a bath. His disassociation from it was amazingly psychologically valid (as many things are in this book written by a "historian") and also interesting foreshadow for the bathroom dream at the end (even though I didn't like it and thought it overdone, it was well set up).
"In time she came to know a good many faces, but none of them were people." As a snob myself among the masses, this just made me chuckle. We all have access to and relationships with lots of creatures, but what makes someone a person to you is oftentimes a much more personal thing.
"Susan wondered if her own discontent was a weakness or if it was only a manifestation of greater sensibility. Was there something gnarly and tough about working-class people that kept them from feeling all that more delicately organized natures felt?" My grandfather-in-law once said that his life would have been easier if he was less intelligent; there is the adage "ignorance is bliss"; I often feel like maybe I would be happier if I could accept things (rather than question or feel less satiated with my near perfect life). Certainly, Susan did not have a near perfect life, but the sentiment provides again a beautiful turn of phrase for a concept often discussed. Later in the book, Lyman says "Quiet desperation is another name for the human condition." This is along the same lines of describing the characters as always searching for something better.
"It happens that I despise that locution 'having sex,' which describes something a good deal more mechanical than making love and a good deal less fun than fucking." I found the whole discussion about Victorian sexual habits/mannerisms as compared to 1970s sexual mores very interesting. In the 2010s we have a much more pragmatic (as opposed to Victorian), but cleaner (as opposed to 1970s) view of sex...with the unbelievable spread of disease (in part because of the activities of the 60s and 70s) we all have to be more focused on 'having sex' (as opposed to fucking) with less abandon, more caution, and always with a thought on being "safe".
"I'm not going to do any better because anybody, even you, is hauling at me. I'm doing my best right now...If a promise means anything, I have to make it to myself...then if I break it I'll be harder on myself than you'd ever be. But I can imaging breaking it...I'm going to feel low a lot of the time. I haven't felt any other way since I can remember, practically. I don't feel any different now...if somebody comes by when I'm feeling that way, and takes a bottle out of a saddlebag, I might help him kill it. If I did, I'd probably ride straight into the nearest town and get some more. I know myself that well." followed by her response: "Doesn't it shame you to be...enslaved that way? Doesn't it humiliate you to think that you can't resist that temptation." Some of the most true words I've read about addiction and quitting and loved ones responses. HOWEVER, not really believable as a conversation between Oliver and Susan within the context of the story. They were not people who would have these conversations. Certainly, in Susan's letter to Augusta she explains how the scenario above would not occur: "We do not speak of any of this. It is impossible for Oliver to discuss such personal matters, he is made voiceless by them. We pretend that by not speaking of them we have made them not exist. Yet it is not the marriage I dreamed of, not the marriage it was. It is a bruised and careful truce; we walk in bandages and try not to bump our wounds."
"I am a justice man, not a mercy man. I can't help feeling that if justice is observed, mercy is forever unnecessary." and "I know no way of discounting the doctrine that when you take something you want, and dame the consequences, then you had better be ready to accept whatever consequences ensue." As with the distinction between faces and people, this is just a great way to state an uncomfortable (and fairly snobbish position).
"Tough of eyes, the sort of look a man under orders might have given his superior, a look in which there was acquiescence but no agreement." Great visual and great description and I've received this look a lot and it really is unnerving in part especially because you know they will comply with your request.
"I supposed wisdom could be defined as knowing what you have to accept, and I suppose by that definition she's a long way from wise." Interesting definition of wisdom...kind of excludes someone like Oliver from ever being considered wise (and I would think that Lyman would think Oliver was wise) because he was never willing to accept things as they were; he was always trying to change and move forward. It seems like anyone with a dream may not be wise under this definition. Coupled with that is a later comment "you'll do what you think you want to do, or what you think you ought to do. If you're lucky, luckier than anybody I know, the two will coincide." You certainly can't call this an optimistic book. The picture that is painted is one on constant (unwisely) struggle for an unattainable peaceful existence.
He explains the angle of repose (title) three times throughout the book. In the first it is "what really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them." implies that they were ultimately a happy couple. When I read this (about 1/3 of the way through) I thought that eventually Susan and Oliver would reach some adequate level of success (for her) and would develop a better relationship. The second time he explains the title is in his dream about Ellen and he very succinctly calls it "Horizontal. Permanently." With this he does not mean actual death, but figurative death. Once Susan has been beaten and comes back to Oliver to accept whatever her position and live out her life in penance she is in essence dead to her previous life, dreams, and desires. She has reached her angle of repose, but this description is certainly not very hopeful or peaceful. Finally (after waking) he defines the angle as "another angle in all those years when she was growing old and older and very old, and Grandfather was matching her year of year, a separate line that did not intersect with hers. They were vertical people, they lived by pride, and it is only by the ocular illusion of perspective that they can be said to have met. But he had not been dead two months when she lay down and died too, and that may indicate that at that absolute vanishing point they did intersect. They had intersected for years, for more than he especially would ever admit." So he tries to leave us with some hopeful image of reconciliation? I don't buy it. Just as the addiction conversation is out of character, I think the idea Oliver forgave Susan and they become an arch without a keystone is preposterous. It felt like a weak attempt at hope, one that is not in keeping with these personalities. Lyman also briefly explains the mining term angle of repose as the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling. Certainly it describes the position at rest. The question is whether the "at rest" is death (figurative or literal) or a peaceful cease of motion (sleep). In contrast with the idea that we are always searching, trying, thinking, striving; the angle of repose is a cessation of movement.