Book Talk: *The Lonely Polygamist*, by Brady Udall

The Lonely Polygamist: A Novel
Brady Udall
W. W. Norton & Company (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0393062627 / 9780393062625)
Fiction, 608 pages
Source: ARC received from publisher (via review program) – pub date May 2010
Reason for Reading: Review for LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Opening Lines: “To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair. But there is much more to it than that, of course; the life of any polygamist, even when not complicated by lies and secrets and infidelity, is anything but simple. Take, for example, the Friday night in early spring when Golden Richards returned to Big House—one of three houses he called home—after a week away on the job. It should have been the sweetest, most wholesome of domestic scenes: a father arrives home to the loving attentions of his wives and children. But what was about to happen inside that house, Golden realized as he pulled up into the long gravel drive, would not be wholesome or sweet, or anything close to it.”

Book Description: 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.

Comments: I’ve read books about polygamy before – both fiction and nonfiction – and I continue to find it a fascinating subject. Brady Udall’s novel The Lonely Polygamist takes a perspective on polygamy that I haven’t encountered before, though; that of the husband to multiple wives. And in a family with three houses, four wives, and twenty-six living children, it turns out to be surprisingly easy to feel alone. Golden Richards is adrift.

Golden Richards strikes me as one of those people that life just happens to; he’s not terribly in control of much of it, but he’s trying to manage it. Growing up in Louisiana with a mother who never got over the departure of his father, Golden – barely educated and strangely innocent – would probably have never imagined he’d end up in a fundamentalist-Mormon church in a small Utah town, but when he eventually meets up with his father again, that’s where Royal Richards’ wandering life has taken him. Golden marries his first wife, Beverly – who was Royal’s last girlfriend – after his father’s death; Beverly orchestrates Golden’s next marriages, to sisters Nola and Rose-of-Sharon and then to young single mother Trish. Power struggles among the wives, rivalry among the many living children and grief over one lost one, and financial struggles in his construction business lead Golden to immerse himself in an out-of-state building job…and to take an all-too-absorbing interest in a woman he encounters there. If he thought his life was out of control before, he hasn’t seen anything yet.

With so many characters to choose from, Udall takes the perspective of three: Golden, Trish, and Rusty, the misfit son of Golden and Rose-of-Sharon (who is, in her way, as misfit as her son). Seeing the Richards family from these differing viewpoints allows their story to be told more fully, and I found it very effective, particularly since the author manages to make each of these characters sympathetic and appealing…more than I might have have expected from a novel with this particular subject matter.

The Lonely Polygamist, at well over 500 pages, wasn’t a particularly fast read for me, but it was an absorbing one. The author truly brings this unusual family to life and renders them with compassion and frequent humor. There are some absurdly funny scenes throughout the novel, as well as some genuinely moving ones. The polygamist isn’t the only one in his family who’s lonely, and connections – made and missed, found and lost – are what propels this story. It took me a few months to get around to reading this novel. In part, to be honest, I was intimidated by the page count; however, that’s really the only thing about the book that’s intimidating at all. Rather than intimidating, The Lonely Polygamist was a strangely endearing novel, and well worth the time I spent with it.

Rating: 3.75/5

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