Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Family Sagas

Two of my first reads of 2014 share the common theme of being multi-generational family sagas, with characters that leave their families to head west toward new lives.

First was a classic that's been on my To Read list for some time, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Although it's a novel that I've long wanted to read, its early-twentieth century American West setting gave me pause since that's typically not my favorite era or region to read about. However, I quickly realized that any preconceptions I had in the shape of Wild West mining towns, cowboys, sheriffs, and saloons would not apply here. Stegner's portrait of the West is filled with hardship and pioneering spirit, but is painted with much more detail and refinement than I was expecting.

Guiding the story is Lyman Ward, an elderly, wheelchair-bound historian who, while living a hermetic life in 1970's California, sets out to reconstruct the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling. An aspiring artist with a strong taste for high society, she's a character who could be easily imagined populating any of Edith Wharton's New York stories. Instead, she finds herself drawn into a marriage to Oliver Ward, an engineer and mining expert who moves his family from job to job in California, Idaho, Mexico, and Colorado. Susan's story unfolds in an interesting way through a combination of Lyman's memories, excerpts from her letters that he reads, and fictional reconstructions that he creates. It's a completely engrossing effect that--somewhat to my surprise--made the novel quite a page turner for me. Combine that with some really beautiful passages of writing, particularly around themes of how one generation relates to the next, and it's easy to see why Angle of Repose is considered a modern classic.

Next was Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel, The Lowland. Spanning the globe from India to New England to California and back, it's a bit larger in scope than many of her other stories, yet still portrays the lives of immigrants in their adopted homeland in vivid and realistic detail. The story starts with two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up extremely close despite their vastly different personalities. Both bright, Subhash is more reserved, devoting himself to his family duties and schoolwork, while Udayan is more impulsive, bold, and argumentative. As a young man, Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalite movement, India's left-leaning outgrowth of the Communist party. When Udayan is killed as a result of escalating political violence, Subhash steps in to marry the young, pregnant wife he left behind. Subhash takes his new family to Rhode Island, where he is earning is PhD, and remains there for the rest of his life, raising Udayan's daughter as his own. As the novel progresses, we see the ramifications of that choice on each member of his family and, eventually, learn the true circumstances of Udayan's death.

The early part of the novel got off to a somewhat slow start for me with its myriad of heavy details about Indian politics in the 1960's and 70's, but any fears I had that it might not live up to Lahiri's other works were quickly pushed aside once I became absorbed in the beautiful, complex character portrayals that she does so well. I happened to notice that one of the blurbs on the back cover of the book described her writing as something along the lines of "translucent prose that makes you forget you're reading". Although that sounds like one of those lyrical lines that don't really make sense but sound good in a book review, I couldn't help thinking that I actually found that to be true with this book--just don't ask me to explain what it means!

There's definitely something satisfying about diving into a multi-generational tale. Do you have any favorite literary family sagas to recommend?


  1. I enjoyed The Lowland very much. And read Angle of Repose many years ago and remember liking it. Thanks for these reviews!

  2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a fantastic multi-generational saga. I'm sure you've read it!

  3. I read The Angle of Repose when I was a teen so I'm sure I didn't appreciate it as I would now - I should read it again especially as I do like reading about pioneers and the West.
    And I liked The Lowland and agree with that blurb too - it felt like reading my own thoughts.
    I'm reading The Light Years, the first book in the Cazalet Chronicles series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a very sprawling family saga set in the late thirties. Pretty good stuff, so far.



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