The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
I don’t think I’ve mentioned my love for sprawling family sagas here yet, because I haven’t really read one yet for the blog—A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t count, since it doesn’t focus on one family. And is there anything more sprawling than a polygamist family? And more challenging—well, at least to me. I strive to be the kind of woman that says live and let live, but there’s something that gets me about sister wives, some kind of personal jingoism that refuses to let me slow down and respect their choices. (And, I must admit, a heaping handful of dismayed rubbernecking.) So I think I find traditional polygamist families fascinating because they challenge me and my efforts to respect other people’s choices, even if they aren’t what I would choose. But it’s The Lonely Polygamist that introduced a third party I hadn’t even thought of: the children.
The Lonely Polygamist follows three members of the sprawling, polygamist Richards clan; Golden, the insecure and powerless patriarch, who finds some unexpected solace with another woman and agonizes over their “affair”; Trish, the fourth and most recent wife, who tries to balance her belief in the Principle with her frustrations with the family; and Rusty, one of Golden and Rose-of-Sharon’s kids, a chubby troublemaker who yearns for a normal life. As Golden’s little affair snowballs into a whole mess of trouble for the clan, the Richards must cling together and prove, despite the fact that they’re falling apart at the seams, that they can be a family when it matters.
By that description, it might sound like Golden having a midlife crisis and how it affects the family, but The Lonely Polygamist is about an entire family in crisis. The Richards are split up in two factions—Big House, presided over by the stern and pious Beverly, and Old House, presided over the funner Nola and Rose-of-Sharon. (Trish, the fourth wife, has her own place and no children from her marriage with Golden; just Faye, her terrifyingly religious daughter.) Their various divisions are difficult to overcome, especially since Golden, who has always been bullied into what other people want for him, tries his best to avoid the children, even though he’s the best suited to negotiate these divisions. And, while Udall is nothing but human to his characters (except for Trish at the end, which I will get to), he doesn’t shy away from the fact that being one kid of nearly thirty can be awful. Rusty acts out because he can’t get attention any other way, and despite his boyish awfulness, you feel for this kid, who just wants a world where his parents can spare actual attention and fondness for him.
It’s imminently readable–halfway through, I picked it up after dinner and read through the evening—and achingly human. While he can fit the bill, Golden isn’t a bumbling guy at the mercy of his shrewish wives (…okay, that’s too much exposure for sitcoms for me!); he’s spent his whole life trying to please people and is shamed by the fact that he can never seem to. Most heartbreaking is the fact that Golden is still grieving over a child, lost at a point when the family was too fractured to pull together. The fact that they’re a polygamist family isn’t to exacerbate things or titillate; rather, it’s to underscore the fact that Golden is terrified to express love because the Principle they live by is all about sharing love, and he’s hypersensitive about showing more or less love to any member of his family. The journey the Richards take from divided, jealous factions to a family that might work is a fascinating and well-written one.
However, I’m still not sure I can really forgive Udall for the end of Trish’s story. (Let’s do this, spoilers.) I was absolutely with her the entire way, and then… let’s just say that if what happens was gender-reversed, everybody would be horrified and there would be no way to redeem Tristan. Not only am I never going to be able to get that gross abuse of power out of my head, but I was so disappointed. The novel spends so much time rendering everyone artfully and well, and then to resolve this particular story by such a flattening, stereotypical concept with such horrifying implications? Yurgh. If only it hadn’t been there at all, and then I could have freely loved and adored this book…
Bottom line: The Lonely Polygamist is a sprawling family epic about what it means to be a family, readable and human. Except for the awful resolution to Trish’s story, which was so flattening that I was disappointed in the novel. Worth a read, but I’d skip a few select pages…
I rented this book from the public library.