The first thing that catches your eye is the title: The Lonely Polygamist? Talk about an oxymoron. But it’s actually a perfectly succinct way to describe one man’s rise and fall (or is it fall and rise?) within a small community of polygamist Mormons. And it’s a very powerful, literary read.
Brady Udall’s novel focuses on three characters (and thank goodness, since the cast encompasses nearly 30 people!): Golden, husband to four wives and the lonely polygamist of the title; Trish, Golden’s fourth and youngest wife; and Rusty, son #5 and the “weird kid” of the family. Chapters alternate between the three of them, and span from Golden’s and Trish’s dysfunctional childhoods to the present day. Each character also has their own arc, from Trish moving forward from past hurts and finding her place in the family to Golden fleeing his family through his attraction to another woman (and its unpredictable aftermath) to Rusty trying to find his place in the world through acting out. Though Golden’s is ostensibly the main story, and takes up the most pages, I thought Rusty’s was the most heart-wrenching.
Now, it would have been easy for Udall to simply villanize the polygamists–but it also would have made a boring and one-dimensional book. I think he instead paints a really nuanced and fair-handed picture of how the polygamist lifestyle affects different people. Trish, for example, craves the noise, the warmth, the constant presence of other people; throughout most of the book, Golden is trying to escape from those same exact things; and it’s the noise and stress that makes Wife #3, Rose-of-Sharon, break down. Most of the kids don’t seem troubled by having 12 brothers, but lack of attention and care makes an outcast and a troublemaker out of Rusty. Instead of sharp, black and white judgements, The Lonely Polygamist takes the harder, but ultimately more rewarding, tack of making us feel what Golden’s family feels about their lifestyle and draw our own conclusions. Udall treats everyone gently and with respect–even when you just want to shake Golden until he makes a decision, damnit.
The novel also goes in completely unexpected places–at least, I was surprised by what happens to Golden and Rusty by the story’s end. It’s a page-turner in the best sense. How will Golden handle his attraction to Huila? Will Trish leave the polygamist life behind? Does Rusty find a way to fit in without alienating everyone around him, or is he doomed by the limitations of the church?
The Lonely Polygamist is a perfect example of readable, moving literary fiction–well-crafted, thoughtful, funny, emotional–and I highly recommend it.
I received this book as an ARC from W.W. Norton, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. The Lonely Polygamist comes out May 3, 2010.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: Four wives, 20+ kids, one husband, and a lot of family drama.