William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.
A book that provoked some strong reactions from our book clubbers.
One member hated every aspect of this book – characters, writing and plot – and would have thrown it out the window – except that she is far too civilised. She found this to be a mind-numbing read and couldn’t believe how it was hyped in the media in the last few years.
The rest of us were perhaps a little more impressed with the writing (if not necessary the plot!) – indeed the score would certainly reflect that! At least one member found this to be deeply moving and heart breaking tale – especially for moments like when the protagonist William Stoner went home to visit his ailing father.
The depiction of the academic environment was apparently very accurate. We discussed Sloane for a little while. We found him to be both inspiring and a bit of a prat. He did seem to be a good academic and he cared though his death on the job was more tragic than emotionally affecting. We wandered off for a few moment and ended up at Sex and the City (seriously!) and Miranda refusing to get a cat…just in case!
One of the aspects that we returned to a few times were the choices that Stoner made – were they good or bad? Did he have agency or was he passive? While we agreed that he was profoundly naive; we still felt that he was near willfully blind – in particular with regards to Edith and her parents. She, from the very outset, was at the very least pretty odd and by the end, malevolence itself. Lying on the bed naked, passive but vengeful; utterly a product of her education – taught to be sexualised but not sexual.
Oh we had a field day with Edith. We couldn’t quite agree on whether she actually cared for Grace – or was her daughter merely the battlefield between father and mother; husband and wife. Did she create her own history? Did she ever break free from her father once he had died? The burning of all his gifts was certainly suggestive but ultimately he had wanted her married off and he had succeeded in that. Edith never managed to overcome the tragedy of her marriage – which made her behaviour later on in book all the more bizarre.
Her depression was another aspect that we weren’t quite sure about. While we all of us felt that she was unstable to a degree; it’s entirely possible that she was faking in order to made William miserable. Her relationship with Lomax definitely seemed to be closer than appropriate – she was very knowledgeable about things that she shouldn’t have been.
We did enjoy Stoner standing his ground. He was not an ambitious man – he refused to go for the Dean’s position and found in Columbia a safety net. However, for a few of us, his misery and sadness and pathetic-ness was not adequately demonstrated. Sure, he had an awful wife; his daughter was turned against him, but he had Grace and he loved her. His friendship with Finch was genuinely lovely. One of the few bright sparks throughout the book. Also, he did have passion – he had literature. And while his actual mistress Katherine O’Driscoll was driven from him in no short order; he still knew romance and physical passion. And yet his love for words never waned. So…why so utterly gormless?
Poor Grace we did have a ton of sympathy for. She was very self aware and so utterly desperate to get out of the house. We felt for Ed also. Grace became a mother to escape and it turned out that she wasn’t very good at it.
In the end, we agreed that this is a wonderfully written book (for the most part) but bleak. Depressingly so. And when compared to Augustus (read by a different book club), this – for me at least – paled almost to insignificance.
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