From a luminous storyteller, a highly anticipated new novel about the American family writ large.
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 American 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. Like John Irving and Richard Yates, Udall creates characters that 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.
Brady Udall grew up in a large Mormon family in Arizona, where he worked on his grandfather's farm. He graduated from Brigham Young University and later attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
He was formerly a faculty member of Franklin & Marshall College starting in 1998, then Southern Illinois University, and now teaches writing at Boise State University.
A collection of his short stories titled Letting Loose the Hounds was published in 1998 and his debut novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint was published in 2001. The Lonely Polygamist was published in May 2010.
How can a guy with four wives and twenty-eight children be lonely? And why should we care, if he is? I mean, the whole idea of polygamy, isn't it -- well, let's be honest -- pretty backwards, with a man who fathers dozens of children by multiple women dressed like they're extras on Little House on the Prairie, all in the name of religion... and these women are subservient and faithful and not to mention jealously clawing for any little bit of their man's attention, which is thin at best. I mean, who cares if this pervert feels lonely??
(Besides, how dumb could a guy be. Being happily married to ONE person is nigh impossible, how in god's green earth can someone think they can make it work with FOUR, without dire consequences?)
Well, Brady Udall did a great job of making me care - by creating the clueless character of Golden Richards, who seemed to just "fall" into polygamy and finds himself wondering how he got there, completely overwhelmed and not up to the task of meeting his family's unquenchable needs. Plus, spoiler alert, the guy isn't getting much sex at all. So turns out, he's very disappointing as a pervert.
And, there are dire consequences. Not everyone in the massive, unconventional Richards family will survive the 600 pages that tell this story. As it turns out, Golden isn't the only one feeling lonely. Everyone there is alone, feels invisible, wants to matter, wants their individuality acknowledged in a meaningful way. But somewhere in the chaos of a house that never has a vacant bathroom, full of people wearing fourth generation hand-me-downs, identities are blurred and forgotten and people are... unseen, misunderstood, and, yeah, lonely.
Thankfully, Udall writes this epic, strange, train-wreck tale of loneliness with such warmth and humour, I was laughing - a LOT, and it really helped to even out the pathos and tragedy. The state of Golden's pubic hair was a source of several belly laughs for me over the course of the book. Also, I loved the fierce and attention-starved Rusty, who, at 11 years old, finds so much of his life to be "a gyp". He's easily one of the best characters I've read in a long time.
Part of me wanted the book to end with all the wives seeing the light and packing their bags. Dismantling the plural family. And with Golden riding off into the distance with a whole new, less complicated life ahead of him. But thankfully I didn't write this book, because it ended just the way it should have, and I was left touched, and just as mystified at the whole idea of polygamy as I ever was.
As I sit down to write this review, I find myself thinking there is no way that I can possibly describe this book: the banalities I usually employ...couldn't put it down...feel so lame because this book was so good, but I'll try. I started out convinced that I would not like any of the characters -- the polygamist husband in particular, but also, the wives. However, the author's painstaking portrayal of the complex emotions that animate each of the spouse's reasons for participating in this lifestyle made it impossible to dismiss any of them, although I ultimately ended up finding the husband (Golden) somewhat pathetic. In fact, I didn't like Golden for most of the book, then the story of his daughter Glory's death and funeral is revealed, and it just broke my heart for him. Similarly, the author makes you love Rusty (one of the young boys) with all your heart, even though he's kind of gross and maddening the way I imagine young boys can be at times. Finally, the chaos caused by and interactions among the 28 children (yes 28) is hilarious without being ridiculous; I would imagine anyone coming from a large family would recognize some of the descriptions as right on the money. What I came away with is that this author really cared about these characters -- which was particularly important I think because the fundamentalist Mormons could easily be reduced to caricatures. I read an article that explained how the author made it a point to visit with one of these communities for an extended period, and to me, it shows in the way he humanized his characters. There were also times throughout the book when I would wonder what is the point of including this storyline, and then boom, the author would do something incredible with it. One example is a lengthy section describing a night where Golden and two women who will ultimately be his wives live through a night of bomb detonations and radiation fallout: then the story of what happens to one of the girls, Nola, that night unfolds, giving a whole new dimension to this loud, wise-cracking, seemingly self-confident woman in a way that strikes a chord with the vulnerable part of every person. Another thing about this author that simply amazed me was how he artfully manages to make the reader feel profound sadness, and in the next instant, laugh out loud. In sum, for me, the range of emotions this book evoked was simply overwhelming. The author's observations about how love and loss are always intimately connected rang all too true, and the end of the book contains one of the most moving accounts of death that I have ever read.
I picked up this novel because it was on a list of 10 best fiction novels of 2010. I hope that is not the case, here, or fiction is in a sad state. The novel is okay; its not great. Udall works very hard to make Golden, his protagonist, a suffering hero with whom the reader should feel compassion. But, the guy is really a wimp. Yes, he takes responsiblity for his family of 4 wives and 25 children and, yes, he's grieving the loss of his disabled daughter who died on his watch but...a lot of these situations find him; he is not really the driver of his life. He is a man to whom things happen to, not a person who makes things happen. Hence, his house is in disarray; his kids are messed up; his business is failing. With 28 children and 4 women, this novel had a lot of potential. Instead, Udall focuses on the one male and one of his emotionally suffering sons. The women are flat, which is disappointing. And, in a novel where there is very little action/plot, you need to have strong chracter - characters with whom you want to know about and follow. I just don't think that Udall was successful in creating that type of character in his protagonist.
Slightly grudgingly, just 'coz I hate bandwagons - literary and otherwise - I'll say that this book deserved all the hype it received.
Here are five things it did well that so many books crash and burn trying to do:
No. 5: It surprised me - overall (I don't know what I was expecting of a book about polygamous marriage, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't this) and in the individual details. There are a couple of twists in characters and plots that I really didn't see coming.
No. 4: It built character through scene and dialogue in ways that felt natural and real (after my recent experience with Shriver's So Much For That, I needed this). Some reviewers have taken Mr. Udall to task for focusing on so few characters and leaving the remainder as caricatures, but I disagree. If you think about the secondary characters - June, Trish, Leo, even Glory, while 'sketchy' they were remarkably varied, and I'd say pretty well fleshed out beyond being mere plot devices (they had their own stories to tell, right? While also being critical to the Golden/Rusty plotline). I'll give you Huila as perhaps the least successful character in that regard. But overall, I thought the secondary characters and plot(s) successful in their own right while also adding dimension to and resonating with the main story beautifully.
No. 3: It presented a unique point of view, which -- if Udall were less deft or compassionate; if it was more the central focus instead of the milieu -- could have been reality TV voyeurism that emphasized their otherness instead of docudrama empathy-building. Because of the essential humanity of each individual character, "they" (as in, fundamentalist Mormons engaged in plural marriage) were not a monolithic block of "others" (I take liberties to assume most of the 12 of you reading this are not involved in plural marriages - have I got that right?). Rather, they were individual characters whom we not only felt for, but felt like. They were us - or any other large family with its politics, petty squabbles, constantly shifting alliances and power dynamics. And she (or he) was me, in her or his insecurities, feelings of being inadequate or unloved or unsure or angry or sad or scared or lonely. In this sense, the docudrama isn't an apt metaphor. The plural marriage and fundamentalism were really just setting, context for the story of the family and the individuals in it.
No. 2: It was a great story. In my Goldilocks evaluation, it had just enough depth and complexity to satisfy, not too much to overwhelm or frustrate. It had these strange details that seemed like asides (an ostrich named Raymond; picnics disrupted by atom bomb tests; a Mescal-swilling Mexican who provides guidance and support at just the right moment), and which could have been too much, too incidental, too over-the-top but instead added texture to the fabric of the story and were in some ways essential elements without which the whole thing could have fallen apart. It hit the sweet spot, at least for me, and in that regard I'd probably suggest a comparison with Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier Clay or Eugenides' Middlesex. If you liked them, you'll probably like this. It carried me along with its twists, turns, segues, digressions, highs and lows.
No. 1: And speaking of highs and lows: lots of reviewers have commented on this, and I have to say it's the dominant literary feature that gives this book its charm and its power. It's tragicomic in the most complete and classic sense. It is crazy funny, absurd, slapstick, rollicking good fun, while simultaneously - in the same paragraph or within one page - also poignant, devastating, heartbreaking and achingly sad. And the sadness is founded on a kind of "alone in a crowd" isolation that is just always so ... so ... I don't know what the word is. Familiar? Essential? Human?
Interestingly, it was not just Golden Richards, the titular lonely polygamist, who was lonely - it was all of them. All of them, in their own ways, which is the loneliest thing of all, isn't it?
I need to stop forcing myself to continue reading a book even though I'm certain I don't like it. By the time I stop reading the books - unfinished, of course - I'm shocked by the amount of time I wasted reading something I don't enjoy.
I found The Lonely Polygamist intensely boring. I suppose I liked some of the characters. I felt for Trish and Rusty, and Golden wasn't an entirely unenjoyable person to read about, but they were all so dull! If any of these people were real, I don't think I could hold half of an interesting conversation with them. I found myself trudging along, despite the intensely easy writing, and wanted to be doing something other than reading, which I very rarely feel. So I skipped to the end, something I can honestly say I have never done before, discovered that everything is hunky-dory in the end, which I expected, and put it in my i-don't-needto-hang-on-to-this-book pile.
Now it's time to cozy up with Cracking the New GRE. That one's sure to be a page-turner.
I’m always eager to read a book with local ties. As the title of BYU graduate Brady Udall’s most recent novel, The Lonely Polygamist, suggests, his critically acclaimed work most definitely has themes central to Utah history and culture.
I picked up this book wondering how successful Udall would be in making his central character, Golden Richards, a husband to four and father to twenty eight, who still manages time to develop an extra marital relationship, at all likeable. Udall succeeds admirably in creating Golden and his other characters. I came to like Golden, and pity him too, even while finding him immensely frustrating at times.
The story is told from three viewpoints, those of Golden, his fourth wife Trish, and one of his sons, eleven-year old Rusty. Trish is well-drawn and relatable, but it is Rusty who steals the show (and stole my heart). I challenge any reader to get through this book without tears and without wishing you could give Rusty a much-needed hug. Bottom line: Udall succeeds in making the sprawling Richards family and their many struggles (some of them tragic) seem familiar, even in their oddity.
This book could also be titled The Accidental Polygamist. Golden doesn't have your typical Mormon Fundamentalist background (he's originally from the south and has no Mormon pioneer heritage) and he just kinds of ends up a polygamist (read the book to find out how). We’ve all heard the sordid stories about polygamous groups (for example Warren Jeffs and crew), and even those of us (like me) with polygamy in our family history can find it all quite disturbing and foreign. While Udall’s story is full of trauma and tragedy, Golden and his clan don’t seem much akin to what we’ve seen in the news (even though Udall spent time among polygamous families while researching this book). I think this makes the story feel much more universal.
One final note, again for sensitive readers: There is a fair amount of obscene language throughout, although I personally would call this more of a PG-13 than an R-rated book.
A rollicking story, perfect follow up for the I. Allende book (with flawless, dull, not-believable characters) I’d just read. This one is chock-a-block with fatally flawed, totally convincing, wretchedly lovable quixotes, most of whom are trying - really, really hard - to Be Good.
The 600 pages flew by. Full of delicious irony - the polygamous family’s 28 children (más o menos) all competing hopelessly for just a moment of their father’s distracted attention. They shouldn’t bother. His repetitive thoughts are compartmentalized: a large part taken mourning the loss of the one child he’d bonded with; Glory, a densely handicapped girl with cerebral palsy he had nursed and connected with. Although she was nonverbal he understood her humor, her sense of fun, could interpret her signs, and when she died - probably from an accident as he was temporarily distracted - he never forgave himself and missed her terribly. Most of the rest (of his thoughts) are about his crush on the Guatemalan wife of the mafioso whorehouse owner he's working for (will she save him?) and wondering how he landed here, right here, in this stranger's messy life.
At one point when the father, Golden, just barely avoids making a huge mistake he realizes it was Glory that saved him: “... the possibility that all things might be restored to him, that the tragedies of this existence might be made right somehow, that Glory might be waiting on the other side, had kept him, as they said so often in church, holding fast to the iron rod. His faith in God and heaven had always been weak, but he believed in them now, if for no other reason than belief in them offered the possibility to be with his daughter again; he believed because to do otherwise would be to consign her to oblivion.”
Are we saved by our magical thinking? Is that why we need our stories and myths so desperately?
Meanwhile, Son #5, a funny, creative, misfit boy of eleven is magically thinking himself into disaster. Rusty “The Family Terrorist,” is an oddball kid who lives in his head - just trying (like all kids) to get noticed by his parents - a difficult task when you’re in a huge polygamist family, particularly when you don’t say or do the right things, and you seem to lack the conviction and discipline to obey without question - an absolute necessity in Mormonism.
He just can’t get along. Early on he wonders to himself: "Was it because Rusty was not a human at all, but the last survivor of a race of intergalactic robots who had sent Rusty to earth in the form of a human to find out if it was a good planet for starting up a whole new race of robots that would one day blow up the universe? Possibly. And being an intergalactic robot, Rusty was new to earth ways and customs and that’s why he was having trouble communicating with the earthlings, especially the Richards family, who were all a-holes?”
So, as is predictable - his actions get bigger and bigger, until there is a definitive explosion. Literally. Ka-boom. So now a: Real World Aside (sadly not fiction): Another child, born inside another cult. The cult was Scientology, both of his birth parents were Sea Org so he was raised, like livestock, essentially without them. He, too, was ‘playing’ with explosives, like our fictional child, but in this real case, he blew off both his hands and forearms and was thus deemed “evil” by his parents and Scientology (because he was not perfect) expelled forthwith from all he’d ever known, and his life went exactly as well as you’d imagine, since. End of aside.
There are so many stories within stories, threads of silliness and sadness and truth. People who are not who they seem to be, who have recreated themselves in the big, open West. I may have enjoyed this more than some because I have roots in this whacky place. My extended family came across the plains to settle in Utah, some were polygamists in southern Utah, some escaped to Mexico when The Principle (polygamy) was outlawed. I have beloved family that lived their entire lives in the nuclear testing (another recurring theme) fallout zone.
I found this a poignant, wise and completely hilarious book. I understand why some might find it odd. It is.
Another moment: “One of the children, Daughter #11, has started a rumor that has been picking up steam among the under-seven segment of the domestic population, that Mother #3 is disappearing, fading in and out, flickering into nothing at inopportune and often comical moments, like a ghost in a black-and-white cartoon. For so long she has asked for nothing, required nothing, taken nothing, only given. It is the story of so many mothers in this small valley and, for that matter, in the larger world that she has heard so much about. It’s very simple: she has given too much, and now there is very little left of Mother #3.”
Golden Richards has four wives, twenty-eight children, three homes and a failing construction business. He takes a job in Nevada, building a brothel and telling his wives that he is constructing a senior citizen center. Golden, who had a very lonely and isolated childhood, is now separated from his family and sinking into confusion. He develops an attraction for a woman that he sees near the construction site and this complicates an already complicated life even further.
Meanwhile, his family is gradually disintegrating, and Golden seems powerless to do anything about it. One of the children, eleven-year-old Rusty, is especially lonely as well, as is Golden's fourth wife Trish, who is contemplating abandoning her husband and the polygamist lifestyle.
These are brilliantly drawn characters in an excellent book. By turns it is heartbreaking and hilariously funny. In particular, the child, Rusty, is a character that will stay with readers for a long time to come. Every time he appears you want to reach into the book and adopt him, but at the same time, his hilarious antics and his exceptional voice leave you practically rolling on the floor with laughter.
This is really an outstanding book that leaves you rooting for all these characters, and for this admittedly dysfunctional family as they struggle against seemingly impossible odds to survive both as individuals and as members of a loving family that only wants to live happily ever after.
This book's strong points: really stellar writing, vividly believable but out-there characters, a set of perspectives that pops the story into three dimensions, nuclear blasts, an evil ostrich, a satisfying ending that isn't really a happy ending, great lists, shockingly accurate fundie-plyg portraits--think bolo ties--, character archs for all, a carrot-on-a-stick narrative structure that keeps us drooling along behind, trying to figure out where we've been and where we're going, some serious goofiness, some weird shiz, romance novels, a cathouse, jolly mexicans, evil pimps, hormonal pre-teens, and bits that made me cry.
As for the premise: take what you think about a plyg family. Now invert it. Voila! Domineering fundie patriarch? No! He's a bumbling pawn! Whimpering naive abused wives looking for escape? Nu-uh. Try worldy women seeking escape from the sour wickedness of gentile life. And dead-eyed drone children? Nope again. Willful, lonely, hungry little people, pissed at their 25th-hand clothes and lack of attention, trying to be good, sort of, sometimes.
The characters are pushed to the extreme edge of personality-- bordering on cartoonish. The patriarch Golden is such a dim desperate doofus and the wives are so 1. rigid 2. jolly 3. crazy 4. sad. BUT it totally serves the story, serves the setting. This family, 28 living kids and four wives, is just any ole family writ large.
That's the real gift of this story and this family-- it's us. No, we might not be fundamentalists sharing a husband with sister-wives. But we do grieve, shut down, try to escape, long to be included, stray from the straight and narrow, make cataclysmic mistakes, and fiercely love our kids. What a great author to plop us down in the craziness, and then make it human for us.
Fantastic! Three cheers! I can't wait to read his next stuff.
This was the rare occasion when I basically skimmed the last 150 pages just to find out a few key plot points, rather than actually reading, because I was excruciatingly BORED while reading this book. The hero, despite having 4 wives, is completely uninteresting -- a hulking cipher as blank as his improbably shut-in childhood without friends or education. If he had one wife, instead of 4, this tale of a middle-aged schlemiel who has no will, no agency, no real yearnings (other than to get with the charmingly tongue-tied brown-skinned wife of his boss (a walking racist cliche)) would never have been published. Absent polygamy, no one would bother dragging through 600 pages of this book -- the male mid-life crisis of incompetence, loneliness and lust has been done to death by far better writers. It's the titillation of fundamentalist polygamy (how does it really work? is it sexy or sinister?) that makes people pick up this book -- but that gimmick is just that -- a gimmick. None of the wives become more than window dressing and 27 children is 26 more than Udall can even be bothered trying to depict.
I finish "train-wreck" novels like this and wonder why I do this to myself. Unpleasant life events happening to unsympathetic people, utterly foreseeable and just as utterly impossible to avert. I come away feeling slightly soiled, not exactly wanting those hours of my life back so much as reminded that I really am not part of mainstream literature's target audience. The novel is well-written, and I understand why it has gotten the reviews it has - deservedly so. But I didn't care for it, and am sad it is taking more than Margaret Atwood's excellent The Year of the Flood to take the mild slimy feeling away from my mind.
Done, done. Finally done. Am still processing how I feel about this one, but my gut reaction is: it was okay. At times it was fascinating; the polygamist life seems so closed and taboo that you almost can’t help but get drawn in by the idea of the story. But for me, sticking with Udall through all 600 pages was an arduous journey. Udall doesn’t vilify polygamists; he also doesn’t embrace them. And perhaps that is where I found much of the difficulty with The Lonely Polygamist; there wasn’t a strong pull either way. I didn’t much care about the people in two of the three main storylines. Golden Richards, “the lonely polygamist,” is going through a mid-life crisis of sorts … only his involves four wives and a couple dozen children, not to mention a failing business that exists in the shadow of his larger-than-life (deceased) father. His fourth and youngest wife, Trish, struggles with loneliness and her position as the “newest” wife---and the only wife to have just one child (obviously not a favored position in polygamist families). And as one of Golden’s many children, Rusty is an 11 y/o boy who simply wants to be noticed over the cacophony of voices and needs that swirl around the burgeoning Richards family--and to be heard he acts out in bigger and bigger ways.
It was Rusty’s storyline that I followed with the most interest, perhaps because the life as a polygamist child is not something you choose; you’re born into it and there you shall stay until you’re old enough to make the choice to break away. Rusty’s struggle for a place and a voice was heartbreaking at times, and that’s when I liked the book the most: when it was able to break my heart a little … to make me feel something for the characters. Unfortunately the book wasn’t able to do it often enough for me to feel much more than ambivalent about the whole thing.
As hard as it may be to believe, Golden Richards is lonely. Golden has four wives and 28 children, but he's never been lonelier in his life. He is mired in a controversial construction job that, if discovered, could bring disgrace to him and his family; he knows his wives and children are looking to him more and more for guidance but he can't avoid them quickly enough; he is still mourning the loss of one of his daughters several years ago; and he has begun a tantalizing flirtation with Huila, a Guatemalan woman who doesn't know about his real life. He is so afraid of letting everyone down but wants nothing more than to run away and avoid the crushing responsibilities.
The Lonely Polygamist is a humorous, heartbreaking, frustrating and beautifully written novel that looks at the realities of polygamy through the eyes of Golden; Trish, his fourth wife; and Rusty, one of his sons, who doesn't quite fit in and wants to be unique, not just one of 28 children. Brady Udall has done a terrific job creating compelling characters and a story that provides deep perspectives into what has brought Golden to this lonely crossroads in his life. While sometimes Golden is a little too passive and you want to react to him the way his wives want to, at his core you see that this is a man desperate for love and approval who is fearful of making a wrong turn but unsure what else to do.
The literary world has billed this book as the next Great American Novel. I don't think it's quite at that level, but it is a really well-written book with a lot of heart, one that is definitely worth reading.
I've been interested in polygamy for a long time, way before popular Big Love hit the small screen. I read quite a few books on the subject, mostly non-fiction - Escape, Under the Banner of Heaven, Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife, etc. - and have a certain image of a polygamous man in my mind, specifically, he is a selfish, power-hungry sexist pig who takes advantage of his women and neglects his children. It seems Brady Udall's goal was to break this stereotype in his book and I guess he succeeds. Somewhat.
Golden Richards is a 45-year old husband to 4 wives and father to 28 children. His life is in shambles - his construction business is on a verge of bankruptcy, his family is falling apart, he is consumed by grief, shame and secrets he has to keep. He is lonely even though he is surrounded by his huge family. Feeling completely lost, Golden finds himself involved in an affair and starts thinking about maybe abandoning his life-style, maybe starting fresh. A tragic event turns Golden's world upside down and forces him to finally make decisions about his life and the future of his family.
Udall definitely succeeds in his portrayal of a polygamous family, all is there - power struggles among the wives, jealousy, neglected children, financial difficulties, constant demands for secrecy. And why wouldn't Udall succeed? The writer is a part of this world himself. Being raised a Mormon, he has a first-hand knowledge of polygamy.
But what surprised me the most is that the author made me feel sorry for Golden - something I never thought would happen. I feel sorry for this man who became a polygamist mostly at the insistence of his first wife, who tries to be fair and is infinitely unhappy because he must spread his affection and love so thinly, ultimately not giving anyone enough and not being close to anyone.
Why 3 stars then? For one, the book is in a dire need of editing. At some point I found myself skipping entire chapters which had too little bearing on the story. 100-150 pages could have been easily cut out. And secondly, the ending is completely unsatisfying, unrealistic and inconsistent with the real-life accounts I've read, all too tidy and pseudo-happy. Ultimately, very little changes in Golden and in his family life IMO. I suspect Udall was compelled to end the book this way because of his personal beliefs, but for most of us, people who do not believe in polygamy, this conclusion is too wishy-washy and hard to come to terms with.
The Lonely Polygamist is not a bad book, a little heavy and boring in parts. People who want to read it because they are fans of Big Love will be disappointed - not much scandal, sex and pure entertainment in it.
"How does a shy, lonely boy from the backwaters of Louisiana become an apostle of God, the husband to four wives, the father to twenty-eight children? Easier than you think."
Golden Richards is a man who never quite takes charge of his life, and this is the result. And THEN he has an affair. My goodness, what next?
This is a captivating novel, funny, touching, and full of believable, all-to-human people. Especially funny and moving is Rusty, the son of wife three (Rose-of-Sharon, who secretly reads romance novels and ends up in a mental hospital with a breakdown from all the chaos)a boy who tries to define himself in a humorous and ultimately tragic way. (It is a credit to author Udall that he embues so many of the twenty-eight children with individual personalities).
After finishing "The Lonely Polygamist" I read Brady Udall's earlier "Miracle Life of Edgar Mint". Love this writer. Brady, keep writing.
Finally! I've had this for several years and couldn't make it fit a challenge, so I was delighted to get to it. I didn't choose this because of "polygamist" in the title, but because I read Udall's first novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had picked it up because it was included in a list of books with great opening lines. Apparently Udall has a talent for great first lines. To put it as simply as possible: This is the story of a polygamist who has an affair.
I wasn't very far into it when I realized that Udall writes of his Mormon heritage in much the same way that Louise Erdrich writes of her Native American heritage. No one is perfect and unblemished. At about the same time, I made a comparison of Udall's humor with that of Richard Russo. His characters are trying to get through life the best they can. We know people like them. They make mistakes - usually with the best of intentions.
Before we read that delightful first sentence, we are provided with a family group sheet. Golden Richards is the father with 4 wives and 28 children. Fortunately, we don't have to remember all of them. This is Golden's story and we know him thoroughly. We also know Rusty, his 11-year old son, intimately, as we do Trish, wife #4. The other wives are important with good characterizations. The other children, with the exception of Glory, make cameo appearances. Thinking of Glory, the child with whom Golden had a very special relationship, will still bring tears to my eyes. Udall isn't all humor. Some lives are harder than others.
Udall has a collection of short stories I haven't read, but it's been 5 years now since he published a novel. If a release were announced today, I'd pre-order it. 5 stars for this one.
This book was a HUGE disappointment. It got rave reviews in Newsweek, which prompted me to buy it. It was way too long, it dragged and there was just nothing interesting about it.
The main character, Golden, is a loser. No two ways about it. Worse, there's nothing sympathetic about him.
There's a lot of dishonesty, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, abandonment, anxiety, adultery, mental health issues, jealousy, and just plain anger and negativity.
The reviewer said this book was darkly humorous. I chuckled maybe twice.
Such a horrible disappointment this was. Ugh.
And **SPOILER ALERT** a grown woman giving a 12-year old boy sponge baths in the hospital until he orgasms is just ucky. And she does it more than once. The kid is in a coma and he has more personality than any other character.
Skip it unless you want something to help you sleep.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Brady Udall has proved to me his ability to draw real and multi-dimensional characters who pulse with courage, fear, doubt, and all the flaws that make our heroes humans. While I'm not completely seduced by the entire package, Udall's strengths as an empathetic observer of the human condition outweigh the book's technical complaints. First off, I wasn't really excited to pick up another book about polygamy. Why is this topic so popular right now? Can I blame reality tv? Fortunately, this book doesn't dwell on the weirdness of Mormon fundamentalism, which I really didn't have the stomach for. Polygamy is something taken for granted as the location of the story, and of all of it's characters, of course weird in their own ways, are weird because every family is weird, and not weird for particular religious beliefs that I, as a reader, might have been forced to cull through. Thank you for that. These are regular people, either born into their situations, or clinging to it as the better alternative than their past lives. The juxtaposition happens when the patriarchal polygamist is attracted to a woman completely outside the polygamist circle, and through his and her perspectives we have a nice little lesson on how we camouflage our desires for autonomy and absolution from regret by seeking same in another and calling it love. I think I was supposed to like Trish a lot more than I did. She was the most accessible character for the average reader, being newest to the family and having experienced a monogamous relationship in the past. But I was really disappointed in her final outcome, and felt Udall may have unintentionally justified some bad ideas. I say anymore and I'll spoil it. Other than great characters, the most descriptive word for this book is "long." My god, 599 pages. Granted, a family of 30-some, and all their affiliated relationships, it takes a while to wrap it all up. And though I couldn't tell you exactly where, some editing is in order. But I did like this book, and in the last 200 pages I can even say I loved it.
It started off so well! I was really enjoying the writing style. Then I got busy and the book was due at the library and I forgot about it. Then I bought it at the airport. The cashier at Powells was giggling as rang it up, she thought it was so funny (the book, not me. Although I was wearing my yellow glasses).
I get it, there are some odd characters and an ostrich and way too many children. I didn't like any of the characters. Golden seems mildly retarded and I am appalled that he had 28 children. Some people might describe it as side-slappingly funny drama. I thought it was sad and annoying. Do you like naked toddlers? I don't. Do you like dogs that pee on rugs? Again, not into it. Do you like moral and judgemental little girls? Well, yes. But they didn't give Faye much to do.
There's a bit of violence, I guess. Some coyotes die. That made me sad.
I was curious why people liked it. I am afraid of Utah and dislike people who over-populate. Also, the characters didn't give me reasons to root for them.
I should probably try his other book and see if I like it more.
How can I rate any book that makes me laugh so much I cry not once but several times lower than 4 stars? And then, can be so sad and tragic that I feel depression settling down on me. There's a lot in this book and it centers around a setting (fundamental Mormonism, polygamy) that has never interested me. But, it was for a book club and on a list of "best novels of the decade" so I started, not sure if I would make it through the 600 pages.
The lonely polygamist is Golden, a man with 4 wives and 28 children, whose life is out of control. He's a Southern boy, moved to Utah to join his father in his late teens and then "fell in" with a fundamentalist Mormon group, living by the Principle. He's sort of a Forrest Gump character, not too bright; life just happens to him, according to what other people and fortune arranges. His wives run his life and his inherited construction business (which needs to support them all) is almost bankrupt. So, he escapes the wives for a construction job 200 miles away building a brothel (which he tells his home folks is a senior living center). And while there, he falls in love with another woman.
Golden is lonely -- it is too much for one man to splinter his attention among all the wives and children, he's always coming up way short, always a disappointment to the family. And some of the children and wives are in great pain and trouble, particularly the 11 year old son, Rusty, who is desperate for some love, attention and something other than worn out hand me down clothes.
Tragedy has already visited the family and Golden couldn't deal with it then; he's going to have to deal with much more in this book.
I couldn't put this down. Well-written, author a good storyteller, capable of amazing characters (not just Golden, Raymond the Ostrich is unforgettable, too). But, I didn't like the way it ended . . . I had hoped that maybe someone in the family would realize there were other, hopefully better ways to live. The wives characters were never as well drawn as those of Golden and Rusty so harder to understand. There's no evil or abuse in this story; there was such "normalcy" in the life as described, except for its hugeness. A book that is going to stick in my mind.
Brady Udall's novel "The Lonely Polygamist" is one of those pieces of fiction where you stare at the jacket summary and think: "Okay, Big Shot. You mean to tell me that you have written a story about a man, his four wives, 28 children and mistress? I dare you to pull off this circus stunt without burying me beneath a 2 ton clown car filled with the note cards I'll be forced to keep to differentiate these characters."
Friends, he succeeds. First Udall weeds the crops, probably realizing that managing the ticks and clacks, hair color and hobbies of 34 characters would be like separating pieces of pudding. He boils it down to the patriarch Golden, a quiet gentle giant who is feeling the weight of supporting this menagerie and their three homes with his failing construction business; Trish, the hot pants newbie to the wife fest, with a colorful past, and a creepily religious daughter from a previous marriage; Rusty, an 11-year-old misfit, a horn dog who curiously tests his sisters' underwear, and is referred to as the family terrorist; Beverly, the first wife on the block, who is a regimented wealth of graphs, maps and flow charts, and signs that remind family members to wife their feet, remove their shoes, not sprinkle when they tinkle, etc. The rest of the fold is in the periphery, with a few recurring names and groupings: Pet, Fig Newton, The Three Stooges, The Twins.
Golden has taken a long distance assignment to build a brothel for a sort of mafia-esque character in Nevada. (He tells his family and the other members of the church council that he is building a church). He spends most of his work week living out of an airstream camper near the work site, sort of celebrating the reprieve from the chaos of home. One day he spots a woman bathing in a small body of water, and he falls in love with her, returning often to wait for her and/or spy on her. Shortly after his boss man, the bipolar and decently armed Ted Leo shows him an area filled with abandoned hubs in the middle of the desert, an abandoned something that no one else seems to know about, Golden realizes that he is lusting over Ted Leo's wife Huila. Uh oh.
Back at home, Rusty's social awkwardness keeps landing him in solitary lock up. And sister wife Trish is reading Cosmo for sex tips involving minty gum. Beverly has a nagging cough, another wife hopeful is waiting in the wings. Rusty has befriended an outsider with a secret stash of gun powder, and has big plans to rearrange the family dynamics -- perhaps even bone his sexy aunt Trish.
The main characters pasts are also revealed in brief satellites dropped into the main plot.Golden's lonely childhood -- which eventually sent him looking for his lost father and joining into the polygamist fray. Trish, who was part of a plyg family growing up, until her father died and the wives scattered. There is also a story involving the death of Glory, who was the physically handicap daughter of Golden and Beverly. And another death, baby Jack, who was born of Golden and Trish baby batter.
This is a really nice story, something that could have loomed large and imposing, but it seems to have been written carefully but in a way that looks easy. There is an on-running sub sub sub plot involving the old gum-caught-in-pubic hair trick that is a little tiring, and a few Huhs? in terms of character continuity. But for the most part, "The Lonely Polygamist" is a satisfying simmer of a read and a nice take on a non-traditional family that seems pretty freaking traditional from up close.
I was curious to see how Udall, who I could tell was a Mormon based solely from his last name (is that bad of me? oh well), would handle a novel about Mormon fundamentalist polygamists. I grew up a Utah Mormon, and my recollection of the polygamists is....well, I didn't have much of a recollection beyond that they were kind of like the oddball, embarrassing cousins everyone tried to pretend were not related to us. Mainstream Mormons are not the most upfront about acknowledging the existence of the polygamists and the connections between the two communities, is what I'm saying.
I finished the book last night, and my verdict is that he handled the sprawling Richards family with sensitivity and imagination. Instead of making them into caricatures - the downtrodden wives, the dominating patriarch, the hordes of squalid children - Udall turns your expectations on their heads and offers up a family in which the patriarch is a bumbling doofus, the family is a tapestry of alliances and divisions, and the wives are the competent glue that keeps the whole clan together. I thought this was kind of a funny critique of patriarchal systems, in which the father figure is invested with all power and authority as God's representative on earth, even if he is a total dope, while the women are subservient to the patriarch in all things, even if they could crush him with their blistering intellect and titanium will. Obvious, sure, but then the fact that such a belief system persists in about a zillion different manifestations tells me that even the most obvious, bone-headed critique is still necessary.
As a result, Golden could be quite annoying, so passive and baffled by the world around him, but I think that's realistic, because seriously, there are people on this planet who are just like that. I know it would be nice if all characters in all books could be likeable at all times, but the truth is, people just aren't that way. The good news is that people can change, and that sometimes it takes unimaginably painful events to force that change, which is something that is reflected in this book.
I will say that I didn't love the ending, and that's because I was absolutely rooting for a particular outcome involving Trish. (I won't say any more so as to avoid spoiling.) The third perspective, that of Rusty, the outcast 11-year-old boy, crushed me. And...how to put this delicately, there was an exchange of sorts between Trish and Rusty toward the end of the book that had me seriously sketched out. Anyone else who has read this book, you know what I'm talking about?
That's a pretty minor critique, though. Ultimately I found this to be a very enjoyable read, with the right mix of literary quality, in terms of writing and character development, and flat-out good storytelling. It's been a while since I read a literary novel that had me wondering what was going to happen next and how the hell the characters were going to get themselves out of whatever mess they'd gotten themselves into.
Golden Richards has 4 wives and 28 children. He's overwhelmed by what he has wrought. Strung out by trying to support his huge brood, confused over which wife he's supposed to spend the night with, and in need of chanting a mantra to remember the kids' names. (Hey - I only have two kids and I can't keep their names straight!) He's a lonely man.
His fourth wife, Trish is lonely too. Still stinging over the recent death of a child, she is unsure how to reconnect with her mostly absent husband.
Rusty, Golden's son #5, aka "The Family Terrorist", is very lonely. He waits by the window, counting passing headlights, waiting for his father to return home and pay him the slightest bit of attention - heartbreaking!
The book focuses mainly on these three characters, though most members of this vast family suffer some form of loneliness. Children misbehave, knowing that parental reprimands are better than no attention. The wives hold bi-weekly summits/complaint sessions just hoping to be noticed.
Despite the sad undertones, this book is in no way depressing. Rusty and Golden continually bumble into hilarious situations and supporting characters provide comic relief. Rusty, in particular, is one of the most endearing and memorable characters I have encountered in modern fiction. The ending was not what I was expecting, but I found it quite satisfying.
This book is a keeper. Beneath all the tabloid sensationalism that first draws your attention, it is basically just a great story about an American family.
A few months ago there was a reality show about a guy (Cody / Kody) with three "wives" who was going to be "taking" a fourth "wife", I saw him / them interviewed more than once. I was stuck with the image of this reality "star" as the "Lonely Polygamist." I mention this only because he was a ... detraction ... for me, but I would also say that I think the characteristics of both the character in the book and the Reality TV "Star" were very similar. The adjective "lumbering" comes to mind when trying to describe them both. The Lonely Polygamist is funny, sad, and a lot of craziness. It starts out sad, sad in the way those commercials that want you to send $10 / month to bring education, food and a smile to some poor child in a third world country, impossible to fully comprehend the impact on a child whose father seemingly abandons him to his mother, a mother who clearly needs to spend some time on the couch of a good, if not miraculous, psychiatrist. After losing her husband, she's determined not to lose her son and so he spends most of his life within the four walls he shares with his mother. When you can't take another minute of this life in a small, backwater, hole-in-the-wall, life changes ensue and it's never a dull moment.
The Lonely Polygamist is really funny and takes place in the area I grew up as a kid. Readers unfamiliar with the culture and territory will still find this story amusing. This book hit close to home - in more ways than one.
A story about an unconventional family and three generations of Richards family males, with names as colorful as their personalities- Royal, Golden, Rusty.
There is a theme of bombs and their ramifications. My favorite character presented in The Lonely Polygamist is actually a bomb named Roy (see chapter 22). I'm glad the author included this bit of Nevada nuclear testing in the story. It's likely Brady Udall has a family connection to these testing and is able to bring a sense of personal knowledge about the effects. My grandfather was affected by the Nevada testing, he raised sheep and rode the open range, subjected to the toxic particles that fell over the Western United States.
It was curious that I initially read The Lonely Polygamist immediately after finishing The 19th Wife, another novel on polygamy, which also took place in Southern Utah. I often find these connections in life fascinating.
On my second reading in December 2020, I did notice The Lonely Polygamist is a bit wordy (my hardcover is 600 pages), and yet by the end of the novel, I think the complexities presented merit the wordiness. Interesting enough, I have The 19th Wife slated to re-read in 2021.
Some Favorite Passages:
Family Home Evening "La la la," he sang. "Do do do." Too busy enjoying his own nudity to notice Golden, the boy rubbed his butt luxuriously along the pine wainscoting and then shimmied to the other side of the room, where he pressed himself into a potted plant. Only when Novella appeared, threatening to tell his mother, did he gallop off around the racetrack, slapping his haunches as he went. ________
Pressing his thighs together so he wouldn't wet his pants, Golden hobbled across the hall and leaned against the doorjamb in a desperate attempt to look casual. He realized he was holding the half-eaten chicken wing right out in the open and in a moment of panic stuffed it into his pocket.
The Barge For Golden it was hard not to think that there might be something wrong about a household in which the dog was wearing underwear and the children weren't.
The Postcard How does a shy, lonely boy from the backwaters of Louisiana become an apostle of God, the husband to four wives, the father to twenty-eight children? Easier than you think.
The Boy at the Window He tried to shout, Daddy's here! Daddy's here! but all he could get out was the sound a choking person makes: ack. He rushed into the kitchen, his face flushed crimson, going, Ack, ack, ack! and his mother, who thought he was choking, panicked and could think of nothing else to do but slap him smartly across the face. He fell backward against the refrigerator, his face burning, but finally able to say it, in whispery squeak, "Daddy's home!"
Golden's Daddy He offered friendship to everyone who would speak to him, but found no takers.
An Ambush When she stepped into the Virgin County Academy of Hair Design, the first thing she noticed was that the women inside - all five of them - wore western-style handkerchiefs around their faces like bandits. _______
She stepped out into the bright day, the sidewalk scorching white beneath her feet, the sky a pale panel of blue over her head, and walked slowly at first, her hair wet and wild, her face still covered with the handkerchief, and then began to run, making a break for it like the outlaw she was.
The A-Holes of Old House "Rusty! Oh no! Rusty! He's in the underwear! Rusty's in the underwear!" Like she was Paul Revere telling everybody the Russians were coming. _______
That sort of talk isn't appropriate. Let's find a more appropriate activity, children. We'll discuss this at an appropriate time. Your shoes, Rusty, do not smell very appropriate. How about, Rusty thought, you kiss my appropriate behind? "What?" said Aunt Beverly. "What did you say?" What? He hadn't said anything! Had he? He turned his head away so she could not look into his eyes. The possibility that Aunt Beverly might be able to see deep into his inner brain with her witchy-woman stare did not surprise him at all. _______
Christ is the Head of This House The Unseen Guest at Every Meal The Silent Listener to Every Conversation
See if that doesn't creep you right out. ________
So, Brother Spooner had gotten rid of all his ostriches, except Raymond, who had once attacked a kid from town who was trying to siphon gas from the Spooner's tractor, and because Raymond had run the kid down and kicked the living dookie out of him and defended the Spooner way of life, he was now considered part of the family.
Old House In the woodshed you'll find Son#4 weeping bitterly and eating his own earwax. _______
Away from the warm bright center of the house where the mothers try to outdo each other in the kitchen, there is a shadow world of disputed territories and black-market economies, a shifting and complex geography of meeting places and neutral zones and sour little crevices and dusty pockets where children go to steal a few desperate moments of solitude.
Number One: Daniel Aunt Daphne had been one of her mother's sister-wives, wife number three, a thoughtlessly kind, chubby woman who hoarded candy at the bottom of her clothes hamper and once gave Trish a whole Big Hunk candy bar, as generous a gift as she had ever received.
The Boy at the Window If you were to ask the boy what he is waiting for, he wouldn't be able to tell you. He is waiting for a meteor strike, a tornado, a full-scale zombie invasion, anything to rescue him from this room, this house, these people. He scans the length of the twisting river and, sure enough, there next to the boulder that looks like a giant snail tow young mermaids cavort in the shallow water, silver scales glinting and breasts a -bobbing, playfully tugging on each other's long red hair. "Dear me," says the boy in an English accent. "Now what do we have here." The mermaids squeal deliciously and slap their tail fins on the water. Lately, women of the nude and semi-nude variety have been insinuating themselves into the boy's consciousness at every opportunity; just about anywhere he looks there are well-oiled bikini chicks winking at him from behind bushes, tall Amazon ladies in leather bustiers making little growling noises at him while they sharpen their spears. If he hears music, even organ music at church, here come the gyrating belly dancers, and if there is water in the vicinity? Bring on the mermaids.
Beep Bop Boop Obviously, his father didn't understand him one bit. Was it because Rusty was not a human at all, but the last survivor of a race of intergalactic robots who had sent Rusty to earth in the form of a human to fin out if it was a good planet for starting up a whole new race of robots that would one day blow up the universe? Possibly. And being an intergalactic robot, Rusty was new to earth ways and customs and that's why he was having trouble communicating with the earthlings, especially the Richards family, who were all a-holes? . . . . "Meep meep," Rusty said, which is robot language for, Aunt Beverly is not my mom, and this isn't my house, and it isn't fair. . . . . "Zzzzt zzzzt," Rusty said, which is robot language for, I'm lonely and I'm mad and why does everybody hate me? "What is this?" his father said. "What are you doing?" "Beep bop boop," Rusty said, which is robot language for, please help me, you are the only one who can do it, I want to go home. . . . . "I just don't know why you have to act so dang weird." . . . . "Meep meep," he said.
All is Well The Virgin Valle: two crumbling volcanic ridges between which a series of small, no-account towns hugged the river, each with its single Mormon chapel and scattering of pioneer homes and failing businesses surrounded by alfalfa fields and orchards of peach and apricot, the entire valley crisscrossed with barbed wire separating neighbor from neighbor, herd from herd, irrigated farmland from giant dusty squares of unwatered ground. To the west the Pine Mountains floating blue and cold in the distance, and to the east the fanged and scalloped horizon of the Vermillion Peaks, shifting color and shape with the motion of sun and clouds.
The Duplex They are bad, bad kids, Daughter #10 concludes, and they are all going to hell.
The Family Terrorist The other kids were cared of creepy Faye, but not Rusty. He stared right back. "It's time for you to go home," she said. "Says who?" "Heavenly Father and His only begotten son Jesus Christ."
Rusty to the Rescue As far as Rusty was concerned, instant pudding and graham crackers with Aunt Trish was as good as it could possibly get, better than cherry popsicles on a yacht with Wonder Woman . . .
Circling Back He was a man with a crush on a prostitute, a condom in his wallet, and gum in his pubic hair -- what could it all mean?
A Hole in the Ground Golden had to wonder, as they drove along the fence that stretched north and south into separate infinities, how Nelson ever managed, with those stubby dinosaur arms sticking out of his torso at a forty-five-degree angle, to button his own pants. _______
"Boo!" shouted Ted Leo, giving Golden a poke in the behind with his stick.
Father and Daughter "My daddy," she said matter-of-factly, without looking up at him. She picked up a pebble, considered it closely, tossed it aside as if it didn't match her expectations.
Just Married It all started on a sweet summer day in the middle of the twentieth century, a perfect day for a picnic. The unblemished sky, the stand of fragrant ponderosas stirred by a mountain breeze as warm and steady as an oceanic current. The day was perfect, and so was the picnic, which Beverly had planned to the last detail: a broad gingham cloth spread with cinnamon bread, fresh-squeezed orange juice from a thermos, croissants, sugared ham, slices of melon, a few wilting sunflowers arranged in a porcelain vase.
Families are Forever "Who on earth busted out the foundation back here?" Everyone stopped talking and laughing, Jorge stopped hacksawing, and they all looked at each other, "What foundation?" Nestor said. "We didn't bust no foundation." "Then how did you get the pool table into the basement?" They all looked at each other again, eyes wide, and started to laugh. Blind Emilio, who was holding an extended tape measure, had a high, sharp laugh - ah-hee-ah-heeeeee! - which caused everyone else to laugh that much harder. "He is Sherlock Holmes!" Jorge said. "He has discovered our lies!"
A Woman with Nothing to Lose She filled him in on the basics: how Sir Nigel Mountcastle, the Scoundrel of the title, had freed Lady Jane Welshingham from an Irish insane asylum, in which she had been confined under the mysterious circumstances, with the agreement that she would become his personal maidservant for a year. Of course, Lady Jane falls for Sir Nigel's rakish charms, even though he humiliates her at ever turn, requiring her to feed him by hand, powder his wigs, and give him his weekly milk bath.
A Special Birthday As much as Rusty hated to say it, these were not vampires, these idiots were his family.
Count Your Blessings "This place smells like poop!" Ferris said, and Aunt Nola said, "I think what you're smelling is the cafeteria." _______
Improvised Explosive and Incendiary Devices for the Guerrilla Fighter . . . sudden supernatural thunder woke up everyone in Old House and worlds would collide and secrets would be revealed and life on earth would never be the same again. _______ . . . when his eyes filled with a white wall of light and inside his head bloomed huge flowers of fire that shot off red screaming meteors and fiery atoms exploding into green stars and shimmering sparkles of gold and blue and oh holy dear sweet jesus lord god it was so beautiful and bright and loud it was everything he could have ever hoped for.
Someone Not Like Him . . . bits of memory and disconnected sensation, broken images creeping into the dark corridors of his mind through back entrances and trapdoors: the swirl of feathers, the flash of light like a splinter lodged in his eye, the vibrating moon, the cold water of the river shocking his hands, the smell of burning hair.
Just a Mixed-Up Boy Stung by guilt, she would remember the sheriff's words - just a mixed-up boy wanting a little attention - and she would realize how culpable all of them were, the whole family, how they had stood by, doing nothing, while Rusty slid away into the abyss. But what would stay with her for a long time to come was the fallen look on Golden's face as he read, the way his eyes lost focus and his cheeks sagged with the unbearable weight of his failure to preserve and protect his son from his own failures as a father, from the failures of genetics and circumstance and fate, from failure itself.
The Boy at the Window On the other side of the glass are small still lifes and huge panoramas, all of them strangely familiar: alleyways and backyards and prehistoric swamps full of long-necked dinosaurs, the contents of a kitchen junk drawer, a wave taking shape on the horizon, a steaming garbage dump, the remains of a rabbit flattened in the middle of the road, a barbed-wire fence made soft with a fur of snow, the bleak red surface of Mars.
It always amazes when a book is populated with characters that I find annoying or distasteful, yet I'm satisfied with my reading experience by the time I finish. I like a book with colorful characters with a few flaws, but I usually would like to root for at least one of them. In The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udell, I found myself wanting to to line up every character, every single character, and just do a running slap until I ran out of faces. Still, I don't regret a minute of the reading experience.
The novel details the life of Golden, an almost reluctant polygamist, his four wives, and 28 children. He's too meek to really be the patriarch of such a clan, so the children run wild while his wives brood over his continuous, seemingly willful absence. As the story progresses, the reader learns the secret history of the family and each member's struggle for control over their own lives in a world where little individuality is accepted.
As much as I wanted to punch literally everyone in it, the book offers an interesting view into the dynamics of a plural marriage. Imagine Big Love in novel form and you pretty much have it. Polygamy is such an exotic phenomenon, yet it exists in our own backyards. If I met a polygamist family, I would have so many questions that would probably be too rude to say out loud: What keeps it all together? How do the children get the individual attention that they need and deserve? How does the arrangement stay vital? So many questions, but no polygamists to ask.
During the first couple of chapters, I laughed with delight at the wit of the writing. But then that wit either disappeared or was overshadowed by a lot of things that bugged me. The history of Golden doesn't match up at all with who he is during the present action of the book. I just couldn't see him as a believable character after that. I don't know a lot about polygamist fundamentalists, but it seemed like the tobacco, alcohol, and swearing don't match up. I also didn't find the common assumptions about polygamists to be realistic: for example, the father forgetting his kids' names? Every father does that now and then, but I can tell you that my grandparents on both sides know the names of every one of their 30+ grandchildren. The boy Rusty's constant wish for a "regular family" also doesn't seem realistic. What is a regular family? To him, it's what he has experienced. My last complaint is the focus on sex. How do I explain? The focus in this book didn't seem to be in the right place. I think a polygamist family would look at sex as a good bond between husband and wife and useful for making children, but Udall's writing about it made it seem more like a dirty, forbidden thing that everyone wants anyway, such as the young boy fantasizing and constantly sexually excited.
Anyway, to summarize, the delight of the first few chapters was quickly disappointed.
P.S. Correct me if I'm wrong, but cleavage at a polygamist wedding? Yeah right.
A family drama, laced with comedy, but still heartbreaking - I found The Lonely Polygamist a most pleasant surprise. Golden Richards is the Lonely Polygamist and as he stumbles about trying to do right by his family (4 wives, 28 children), his struggles do not seem that different from anyone else's. While they may not be different, they are compelling. You will find yourself flying to the end of this book (it is a big one - 600 pages) just to find out what happens to all the characters. Udall does a great job of creating a number of characters, all of whom you feel vested in. This is one of the best books I have read in quite a while!
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.
Meh. It was an interesting premise -- sure, I'm pretty curious about what it might be like to live in a polygamous family and how those dynamics might play out. But without any complex characters driving the story (what story? was there a story here?), my initial eagerness ebbed and I eventually returned the book to the library unfinished.
Golden Richards, the lonely polygamist of the story, is a pretty boring and wimpy guy married to four wives, a father of 28 children, who develops an interest in another woman. It's risky to try to write a novel about a boring, wimpy character. Richard Russo succeeded in Empire Falls, which is part of what made that book remarkable. Brady Udall, sadly, does not. Golden Richards is, as one reviewer put it, a "shambling doofus" who doesn't particularly endear himself to the reader.
Nor are his wives any more interesting. The first wife, Beverly, is clearly a tough cookie but we don't learn much else about her. The two next wives are sisters, which could make for some interesting conflict but apparently doesn't. Trish, the youngest wife, is something of a tragic figure but despite this doesn't manage to be any more interesting than the other wives are. Conflict and catfighting between the wives? Surprisingly, no. They have a system worked out for which one Golden spends the night with when, and Golden simply trudges along with it. Beverly doesn't appear to be liked much, but as with so much else about the book, that goes nowhere.
The one character with some potential is an eleven-year-old boy named Rusty, one of Golden's children, a precocious misfit. But even he wasn't sufficiently engaging to keep my interest, especially in the absence of a plot. The book alternated between Golden, Trish, Rusty, and some omniscient narrator (the house?) and read like a bunch of loosely connected slice-of-life vignettes. In other words, as I often find myself griping, this was a situation -- not a story. The polygamy set-up, while intriguing in theory, can only carry a book so far in the absence of developed characters or a plot.