Stoner

A review of the novel by John Williams.

StonerStoner is not a new novel, having been first published in 1965, 50 years ago at the time I write this and re-issued in 2003. It seems to have been re-discovered in recent years, earning a number of plaudits from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. A synopsis of the book can be found on Wikipedia here.

William Stoner, the eponymous title character who hails from the village of Boonville, Missouri, leads, in a number of ways, what many might consider to be a rather sheltered life. He was a naive young farm hand when he left home, who for all his intelligence and learning from his university education that certainly increased his knowledge, he remained naive to many of the ways of the world.

The novel takes us through his leaving home to study modern farming, at the university of Columbia, but discovers literature instead. This leads his life in an unanticipated direction, to a career he could not have imagined while still working on his parents’ farm. He becomes competent but undistinguished in his profession and the book focusses on his feelings and emotions as much as his life’s travails.

Stoner and Edith marry to early. He has no experience of other girls before his marriage. She, it seems, is not so much wanting to marry as to escape her seemingly stifling, over protective parents.

Stoner has few true friends and apart from a brief period in his student years, has a difficult life. The nature of the difficulties changing as the years over which the story is set pass by, from being a young man until his retirement, with two wars in between.

It is a novel which some married readers, especially married male readers, might find a little disquieting if their marriage is not perhaps as happy or fulfilling as they would like it to be. Some younger readers, brought up in an era when divorce is now both easy and common, might wonder why Stoner did not separate from his wife.

It is not until Stoner is in his forties that he discovers what many, dare I say most, people discover about love at a younger age, when he realises that “the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end”.

I’m not sure about the originality of the story, which is really quite a simple one, about one man’s life that, I think, could be transplanted to a number of different settings. What keeps the reader engaged is the beauty and quality of the writing with its, sad, poignant and direct style that would keep most readers coming back until the end.

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