A Year in Reading: Kevin Hartnett

December 18, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 4 2 min read

coverFor years I’ve heard my mother-in-law say that Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is the best book she’s ever read — and for years I’ve chosen to read other books.

But this summer, during a long layover in the house where I grew up, I spent the longest nights of the year deep in Stegner’s stirring descriptions of the American West. His feel for the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, Colorado, and Idaho in the late 19th century nearly prompted me to vacate the coast. The novel left me continually uneasy in my chair for other reasons, too. Stegner creates the tragedy of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage with real-to-life perfection. He slowly locks them into a landscape of silence and misunderstanding that’s as unconquerable as the arid territory they’re trying to settle. After I’d finished the book, a friend who’d read it decades ago, told me he still considers it the finest fictional depiction of marriage he’s ever read. I agree.

covercoverAfter Angle of Repose I read Gilead, which I thought was also superlative, but which didn’t hook me in the quite the barbed way I always hope for in a novel. I think I just had a hard time getting inside John Ames’s end-of-life equanimity. With Gilead finished, it was back to Stegner. I began reading Crossing to Safety with a copy checked out from a library near my old home Maine and finished it with a copy borrowed from a library near my new home in South Carolina.

Crossing to Safety, like Angle of Repose, is about marriage, and it reinforces Stegner’s interest in a particular kind of relationship: strong-willed, striving women and the ways they misunderstand their meek husbands. I’d like to know what in his own life put Stegner onto the topic. I also appreciated the opportunity Crossing to Safety provided to talk about the qualities that attract friends to each other, and to consider how being married bears on the way we choose to die.

coverMore recently, I’ve read The Power and the Glory. The finished book, with its many exquisite scenes, is sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be sent back to the library. I’m happy to say that the smells of mule dung and whiskey are still thick in my blood, secret companions like a flask to this holiday season.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. It took me years to finally read Wallace Stegner as well. After reading Angle of Repose, I was sorry to have taken so long. It remains a personal favorite, along with The Big Rock Candy Mountain, another story of an unhappy marriage. And speaking of novels of marriage, I have to mention another of my personal favorite books, Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years. Enchi’s book could have easily swerved into melodrama, but she has such control of the material that this does not happen. Instead, it is almost as quiet, and devastating, as John Williams’ Stoner. It won Japan’s highest literary honor, and, in my opinion, is actually Nobel Prize worthy; unfortunately, Enchi has died so is no longer eligible. The Waiting Years is worth seeking out–beg, borrow, steal. It is worth it.

  2. Stegner is a treasure, and perhaps overlooked in his lifetime as consequence of not being in the eastern literary spotlight. Besides those discussed, I would like to recommend ‘All the Little Live Things’ and the National Book Award winner ‘Spectator Bird’. Much of his contemporary work has strong autobiographical elements at play.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.