Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams




Stoner was first published in 1965 but has only recently found success, 19 years after the death of John Williams. I finished it a few days ago but have been struggling to know how to write this review. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, quite the opposite actually, I'm just not sure if I can do it justice. The Stoner of the title refers to William Stoner, son of a farmer who originally goes to the University of Missouri to study agriculture but falls in love with literature and eventually drops his science courses in favour of philosophy, ancient history and English literature and ends up teaching at the university for almost forty years. And that in an essence is it, there are no great dramas and no shocking plot twists. It's a quiet character study of a quiet man who goes to college, finds work, marries (the wrong woman), has a child and eventually dies. He does nothing extraordinary and yet this is a book that moved me to tears and will stay with me for a long time. Stoner himself is unremarkable and we are told remembered rarely after his death but this gentle man who lives for much of his life unloved is still able to feel deep love for others and for literature and is a character who reminds us that we all have our stories, our successes and failures even if we will be forgotten by history. Achingly sad at times but wise and truthful, it was chosen as Waterstones Book of the Year for 2013. It took me a while to read because I wanted to savour this deceptively simple novel that covers a man's entire adult life in under three hundred pages but never feels rushed. If you love literature and the power of a perfectly structured narrative then I highly recommend you read this deservedly lauded book.

Stoner is published by Vintage Classics.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review. You have summed up what many people seem to think about this heavily promoted book. Did you not find that the female characters were portrayed unsympathetically? I thought there was a misogynistic tinge to the tale. I could not understand why the author did not either leave his wife or try to be happier with her. For me, this was a psychological puzzle that could only be explained by the main character not liking women. I agree that it was a well-composed novel, but it left me dissatisfied.

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  2. Sorry have had a problem with the commenting facility. I meant why did the author not have Stoner choose between the wife and the other woman. Apologies.

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  3. It's an interesting perspective and one I admit I hadn't considered previously. I agree the wife was portrayed unsympathetically as to a degree was the daughter, certainly as an adult woman although I assumed that was due to the damage done to her growing up in a dysfunctional environment rather than the author's misogyny. As for why he didn't leave his wife, my assumption wasn't that he didn't like women but rather he was a character without any real drive or fight in him, life happened to him and he rarely made any proactive decisions. Had the novel been set in England he would have been the archetypal buttoned up Englishman. I think in many ways it is a dissatisfying novel, we're so used to a character evolving during a novel and he didn't change as much as the reader was crying out for. Perhaps though that's more realistic?
    Thanks for commenting with your thoughts, it's interesting hearing a different viewpoint on the book.

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  4. Thanks for replying and for being so very courteous. I hadn't considered him as an American 'Englishman'- that's a very clever angle indeed. The great thing about books is that we all read them differently. I didn't mind the character not making decisions; I just wanted him to try harder to communicate with the women around him. Best wishes. Great blog by the way.

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  5. I love hearing how other people have read books differently, it makes me think and adds another layer of enjoyment to reading! Thank you for your kind comments and best wishes to you too.

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