Books on GIF #41 — 'Crossing to Safety' by Wallace Stegner
|Books on GIF||Apr 16, 2017|
Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books — from bestsellers to classics to unearthed gems — told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.
This Sunday's book is 'Crossing to Safety' by Wallace Stegner.
I want to punch this book in the FACE. I loved it. It made me FURIOUS. The ending! GRRRRR! I need to breathe.
Whew! OK. We'll come back to the ending. Here we go. 'Crossing to Safety' focuses on two couples who meet and basically fall in love with each other in Madison, Wisconsin, during the late 1930s. Larry and Sally and Sid and Charity know they're going to be best friends right from their first meeting.
The book opens with Charity on her deathbed, determined to celebrate her final birthday with a picnic in her Vermont compound despite stomach cancer that will soon kill her. She's gathered her family to say goodbye. Larry and Sally, who are practically family, come as well. Larry narrates the events of their last day together, interspersed with flashbacks to key moments in their decades-long relationship. They spent so much time together over those years, I was reminded of 'Goodfellas,' and how the gangster families always went on vacation together.
Larry and Sally arrived in Madison amid the Depression with a temporary teaching gig, a baby on the way and barely enough money to keep a roof overhead. Charity and Sid, who are rich, take them in and shower them with gifts, praise, picnics and other tokens of affection. Their group friendship is free of text messages and Facebook, and any FOMO they feel is not derived from looking at Instagram, but instead from war, polio and not getting tenure, among other things. Stegner's book is about relationships IRL, where friends occupy the same physical space and have shared experiences. When Sid and Larry find a beautiful vista during a hiking trip, for example, they can't tweet a photo. While the book was written long before social media, it can't be read now without having it in mind.
What I really liked about this book is that there was no second act tragedy to shape the plot. In fact, Stegner (through Larry) informs the reader that there will be no adultery or any other serious conflict among the friends to set up a cliched scene of reconciliation or redemption. The book, instead, relies solely on the strength of Stegner's characters and his writing to remain interesting. And it does. The characters are vividly drawn and relatable, even if you can't stand them. Charity, for example, is overbearing and exasperating, but Stegner's way of using italics to punctuate her manner of speaking really made her come alive in my mind. Then there are little details — the way Sid's hair was thinning, how dirt felt under Larry's foot, how Sally walked in leg braces — that make everything clear without getting bogged down in descriptions. It's fine writing.
All of this beautiful writing subtly sets you up for a wallop at the end. I'm not going to spoil it, but it's cruel and mean, and I was outraged. Don't get me wrong, this is not a failure of the writer. Stegner drives his point about the value of friendship home in such a heart-wrenching way that when you're done reading it, email me and let's discuss it just like I just did over text messages with Julia, who recommended this book to me. (Here is live footage of Julia receiving my texts.)
Charity finds out the hard way that friends and spouses are important. So hug your friends, call your mom, kiss your wife. Because when they're gone — through death, or because you drove them away assuming Facebook would suffice — it hurts. The loss is real.
'Crossing to Safety' by Wallace Stegner was originally published by Random House in 1987 and subsequently published by Modern Library in 2002. 327 pages.
What's next?In the coming weeks I'll review 'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman, 'Fates and Furies' by Lauren Groff and 'Ties' by Domenico Starnone, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!