About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

#37: The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

"Golden Richards, husband to four wives, father to twenty-eight children, is having the mother of all midlife crises. His construction business is failing; his family has grown into an overpopulated mini-dukedom beset with insurrection and rivalry; and he is done in with grief: due to the accidental death of a daughter and the stillbirth of a son, he has come to doubt the capacity of his own heart. Brady Udall, one of our finest fiction writers, tells a tragicomic story of a deeply faithful man who, crippled by grief and the demands of work and family, becomes entangled in an affair that threatens to destroy his family's future. Udall's characters engage us to the fullest as they grapple with the nature of need, love, and belonging. Beautifully written, keenly observed, and ultimately redemptive, The Lonely Polygamist is an unforgettable story of an American family -- with its inevitable dysfunctionality, heartbreak, and comedy -- pushed to its outer limits."

Opening Line:
"To put it as simply as possible: This is the story of a polygamist who has an affair."

My Take:
The Big Love comparisons are inevitable: Our hero, a decent and surprisingly gentle guy who just happens to have four wives, is down to his last nerve, what with his wives always at him for something and all those darned kids running around underfoot. Even his name evokes Bill Richardson's.

And so far, that's about where the similarities end. I don't know enough about FLDS polygamists to know if this story is an accurate portrayal, but it definitely makes the HBO series seem like the Disney-fied (well, plus the sex) version. Here, the kids are constantly clamoring for a scrap of Dad's attention, ever vigilant lest someone else get a stick of gum they miss out on. Wife #1, Beverly, gets a new couch, and a mutiny almost results when the old one is passed on to Big House for #2 and #3 to enjoy. There's never a bathroom free when you need one, and Beverly is appalled when an 11 year old boy (not her own son) is caught trying on his older sisters' underwear -- not because he finds it exciting, but because he himself has never had any underthings that are brand new and not stretched out. And Golden's construction business? This is no HomePlus where he owns a successful mega-store or 3 and gets to go home for dinner with the fam every night; you see, business has been poor these last few years, and he's been forced to work 250 miles away to make ends meet, living in a Spartan trailer, coming home only on weekends ... and building, of all things, an expansion for a brothel (which his wives don't know about, though everyone else in his circle seems to have figured it out).

(later, 5/16/11) I don't often say this any more, but I'm glad I stuck this one out. The characters and plot lines manage to at once be so over-the-top that they're simultaneously funny and repellent (um, 4 wives and 28 kids?) ... and yet very real, as if the Richardsons' trials are just like everyone else's, but more so. I couldn't decide till fairly late in the game whether I liked Golden's character or not, but I managed to feel a bit sorry for him anyway. And my heart just broke for both Rusty, the aforementioned 11-year-old coveter of his sister's new underwear, and Trish, the pretty but isolated and grief-stricken fourth wife. It takes a while for the story line to really get going, but once it did, I couldn't put the book down. Satisfying conclusion, if just a wee bit too neatly wrapped up. Definitely worth a read.

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