Friday, August 6, 2010

"The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall

Summary: Golden is the patriarch of the Richards family, which includes four wives and twenty-six children.  Never at ease in his role as head of the large family, Golden has been feeling increasingly stifled and exhausted, using work as an excuse to avoid home.  The Lonely Polygamist follows Golden, his fourth wife Trish, and his eleven-year-old son Rusty as they struggle with their loneliness and frustration in a family that is falling apart.

Musings: This book immediately brings to mind the HBO series Big Love (which I only saw a few times), though the family members' isolation in a world of chaos seems even more pronounced here.  Going in, although I heard many good things about the book, I wasn't sure what to think.  It's hard to imagine sympathy for a man who has taken on four wives, as the chastisement "you got yourself into it, after all" seems appropriate.  Nonetheless, Udall's novel depicts characters never quite in charge of their own lives and whose frustration and "acting up" is both completely understandable and unfair to those around them.  They're relateable despite living away from what most of us would consider the norm.

Golden is an exhausted man who only came to the polygamist life as a teenager following his father.  He doesn't question his lifestyle or the religious backing for it because he has been raised to avoid conflict and decision-making.  First his father, and then his first wife Beverly made the decisions for him.  Yet the stresses of constantly failing everyone--his wives, his children, and most notably his recently-deceased child Glory who had been born with disabilities--have worn down on him.  In the first sentence of the book, Udall announces, "This is the story about a polygamist who has an affair," (15) and although not really the central focus of the book, Golden's "affair" does give him some release from the anxiety of his home life while also bringing all the stresses of his life to an even greater breaking point.

Trish and Rusty are also equal narrators in the book, which I was glad to see.  Trish came to the polygamist family looking for home and belonging.  Rusty, scapegoated as the "trouble-maker" of the family, struggles with both resisting and conforming to his family's categorization of him.

There are moments of hope and sadness in the novel, but, most of all, I felt resignation and acceptance.  It's no "happily-ever-after" type of story, but it's probably the most true to life.  Although we'd all like to imagine the possibility of grand-scale changes in our life, small concessions and the ability and willingness to continue on are probably the best we can hope for.

Udall has created interesting and sympathetic characters, and the narrative moves quickly along.  There are small moments of humor and the recognition of the absurdity of family life.  I never found myself bored or uninterested.  This is also the first book I've read on my Kindle, and though I thought the e-book format might be somewhat distracting, I had no problem reading the novel as quickly and easily as I do with a traditional format.

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