Sunday, May 12, 2013

Crossing to Safety - from the end

I finished Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, the other evening. Oh how I cried and cried.

The “plot” of this book is simple. It’s about two couples, Sid and Charity Lang and Larry and Sally Morgan, who meet when both husbands are young lecturers at a university, and both wives are pregnant. The book, narrated by Larry and largely autobiographical for Stegner, follows the course of their friendship and their marriages throughout the years, through their ordinary joys and sorrows, through a year of peace and friendship and pleasant adventures shared together in the history and beauty of Florence, till they come together many years later when Charity is dying of cancer.

There is no very great excitement in the story. Larry himself, commenting on Americans who settled on the Left Bank in Paris, narrates:
They had had only a war to damage them, and war’s damage is, when it isn’t fatal, likely to be stimulating rather than the reverse. Living through a war, you have lived through drama and excitement. Living through what we had been given to live through, we had only bad luck or personal inadequacy to blame for our shortcomings.
Whatever you think of the truth of that statement (and I am glad I don’t believe in “bad luck”), it describes this novel. And yet it is a story about people, about relationships, about characters and how they grow and change or don’t change. And those are the stories I like best.

Larry and Sally suffer the misfortunes of circumstances more severely, yet their marriage is harmonious, sympathetic and tender. Sid and Charity have all the blessings circumstances can give, and you come to love them both, but their marriage is, as one son-in-law later describes it, “... mutual crucifixion. They aren’t individuals, they’re confrontation. They’re an insoluble dilemma ...”.

In the end I cried, not for the dying Charity, but for Sid, whose marriage was “a kind of slavery” but one that he “couldn’t bear to part with”, and for Sally, the suffering saint, and for relationships that can grip us so closely and yet hurt so terribly.

I was a little dissatisfied with the ending. I was hoping for a metaphorical “crossing to safety” for Sid and Charity, a moment of self-awareness for Charity when she would relent and soften from her arrogance of believing she always knew what was best for people, and from her tyrannical insistence that they act her script. But their marriage ended as it had always been, which is no very great surprise, yet it was heart-breaking.

It’s a beautiful piece of writing. Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer in 1972, proof that he knows how to thread one sentence after another in pleasing array, and so if you like the stories of other lives told well, you will like this book.

I am now keen to read Angle of Repose, the novel for which Stegner won the Pulitzer.


Karen said...

I'm keen to read Angle of Repose too...but it isn't in our local library so I am going to have to wait until we have a little more money if I want to buy it.

I agree with what you've said here :) I found it fascinating that a book could be written with such an exclusive focus on four main characters and with barely anything in the way of plot. What I loved about it was the moments of profound insight in the way he writes, and his understanding of the human condition.

Ali said...

Oh, me, I just clock it all up at the (then wait for the parcel). I am about to go under in books in my flat though, so need to rethink this extravagance.

Yes, I loved this. Thanks again! The "human condition" is always my favourite part of any story in any case, and I loathe action movies with no "character", so it was right up my ally (the one thing I found a trifle odd though was that even the births and presence of their children barely made a mention, such was the focus on the adults, but I imagine he was deliberately containing it to them).

Meredith said...

I'm also keen to read Angle of Repose...but what if it isn't as good??? Decided I just had to let Crossing to Safety sit a while and may get to it next year. Or maybe one of you will read it first and rave about it for me and help me get to it sooner. :-)

In the meantime, it's been such a joy to watch your deep appreciation Ali. Thank you. It has been a real gift.

Karen - I am currently reading Nothing to Envy which I think you read a while ago. Riveting, in a very sad sort of way.

Karen said...

Meredith, look forward to hearing your review :) It was a sad book to read, but I do agree that at the same time it was very hard to put down!

Ali said...

Meredith, I think Angle of Repose sounds different enough to this one that the comparison shouldn't be too stark. But who knows ...

And thank you for the tip. Now you both have me curious about this Nothing to Envy. I'm a sucker for "sad". I really am going to have to try to make a library somewhere work for me.

Karen said...

Sorry Ali, should have clarified but I had to go back and check my blog to remember which book it was ;)

Nothing to Envy is a non fiction book (author is Barbara Demack, I think?) about life in North Korea told from the perspective of some people who have defected.

Meredith said...

Yep, Nothing to Envy is non fiction but written by a journalist and reads like a novel because it is so well written. It is a book about people and their lives - just in really terrible circumstances. Made all the more terrible to read because it is true and recent. But Ali I would hazard a guess at saying I think you would probably like this one too. But it is serious so it is worth picking your time to read it. I have been sitting on this one for about six months.

Ali said...

Hmmm, this one sounds a little 'rugged'. I need to press on with The Brothers Karamazov (I stalled on that one in the middle of this big spiel of Catholic veneration for a dying monk), and I also have a book to read called Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.