Tuesday, January 31, 2012

REVIEW: Stoner, by John Williams

Stoner, by John Williams. Published 2006 by NYRB Editions.

The other day I was looking for what to read next and I remembered that I had this book Stoner on my shelf, and that it had been there for a while. I also remembered that a couple of my good book pals (Matt of A Guy's Moleskine Notebook and bookseller extraordinaire Michele Filgate) had read it and really enjoyed it, so I decided to pull it down and give it a try. A day and a half later I was done with this remarkable little book.

Stoner reads like a fictional biography of one William Stoner, born dirt-poor on a hardscrabble farm in Missouri. His parents send him to college to study agriculture and agronomy, but he becomes enchanted by literature and decides to abandon the farming life for an academic one. He marries a young woman from a well-off family but the marriage founders; he has a daughter, but her life is a sad replay of her parents'. His career never really takes off; his stubbornness and his love, late in life, for a fellow instructor doom whatever modest ambitions he may have had.

So the book is definitely kind of a downer (Stoner reminds me of Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's depressing The House of Mirth, a woman not quite capable of the ordinariness she covets) it's also a luminous and moving novel about one man's life, albeit a quiet life filled with a steady stream of disappointments. What saves the book for me, and the reason I'm going to recommend it to readers of literary fiction, is that incredibly beautiful writing. His love affair with Katherine Driscoll represents the high point of his life:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being, to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity, he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented an modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
Intelligence and heart are what characterize this lovely little novel. Equally beautiful passages can be found elsewhere, particularly about the other love of his life, his daughter Grace, ruined by her mother's anger and Stoner's own powerlessness over his wife. The story is very sad, no doubt, but it's also very beautiful and Williams' prose will hold your heart tight all the way to the end.

Rating: BUY
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales. 

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

16 comments:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Hoping to read this one soon as I purchased it and several other NYRBs in 2011. This one sounds terrific.

Anna said...

Sad and beautiful sounds like my kind of book. Will keep this one in mind.

Care said...

I have this on my tbr! someday.

I love the cover - does it say the artist?

PS - I have a request: can you check your gravatar so that when I see your comments elsewhere and go to click so I can come here, that it will actually link? :) It takes me here instead: http://en.gravatar.com/bostonbibliophile

JoAnn said...

If you and Matt both liked it, it's a must read for me!

Zibilee said...

I remember being intrigued by this book about a year ago, when it appeared somewhere that I am not remembering right now. I am glad to have read your perspective today because now I want to read the book. It would be great to see how our reactions vary, or if they are similar. I need to see if I can find this one! Thanks for the great review today, Marie!

Audra said...

Yours is the second positive review I've seen of this book -- I love the Wharton comparison. Will have to pick this up!

R. J. said...

Thanks for the info. The section you quoted is beautifully written, but I don't spend a lot of time on books for that alone. Gorgeously constructed sentences and paragraphs won't entertain me for long. I am at a time in my life that I love entertainment, escapism and uplifting stories. There is enough sadness in life without making myself depressed by reading a sad story of someone with a life of regrets. I liked reading your review, I just need great plots. I like James Patterson's philosophy, "Tell me a good story." I like to read good guys vs bad guys with the good guys winning. When a plot has good guys vs life, life always wins. I like to read a plot where victims stand up and don't take it.

Kathleen said...

If the writing is beautiful I can handle the depressing story.

EnriqueFreeque said...

Very nice piece. And another book I'd of never known about had NYRB not brought it back. I wish I could read a book like that in a day-and-a-half! Maybe a month-and-a-half! Slow reader here, and gorgeous language always slows me down even more, as I savor it. Stoner's been on my shelf for several years, untouched. I'm ambivalent about reading it: sounds too real, too close to home. But you've made me curious ...

Col (Col Reads) said...

Wow, this sounds so sad -- but also worthy of attention. Thanks for your thoughtful review of what sounds like a tough read.

bookspersonally said...

What a lovely review... really love that line: "a human act of becoming." Beautiful.

Marie said...

I think you'll love it Diane!

Marie said...

JoAnn, read it! you'll love it, I know you will.

Marie said...

Done!

Marie said...

R.J., well you're certainly not obliged to read a book just because I liked it if it's not your thing!

Aarti said...

I've heard only positive things about this book! I hope I am able to find it soon.