THE LONELY POLYGAMIST by Brady Udall

Book Quote:

“Families are Forever: He wondered if the slogan was meant as a promise or a threat. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JUL 21, 2010)

One can see why Rusty, Golden Richard’s son, would call him Sasquatch. After all, Golden is a lumbering, huge hulk of a man and to his son, probably as elusive to spot as Bigfoot. This is because Rusty is one of 28 children and Golden Richards is the “Lonely Polygamist” outlined in this novel’s title.

Golden is married to four wives spread out over three houses in the Virgin Valley in Utah. There’s Old House, Big House and a separate smaller place where the youngest wife, Trish, lives with daughter Faye. Beverly Richards, the oldest “sister wife,” is the family matriarch and sets the rules for the household. She runs a tight ship and enforces rules strongly even if there is silent rebellion among the other sister wives. “You cannot take five steps in this house without being reprimanded or corrected or warned, without being reprimanded that rules and laws are what separate us from the worst aspects of ourselves and are all we have to keep sin and ugliness and anarchy at bay—and that is exactly how Mother #1 would have it,” Udall writes. The entire set also determines Golden’s sleeping arrangements.

Of course Golden, for his part, is almost never home. The owner of a construction company who is staring at bankruptcy, he has secretly taken up the construction of a brothel house in Nevada. Since such a project would be frowned upon by his church and religion, Golden has told everyone back home that he is working on an old people’s home. In Nevada, Golden lives in a small trailer commuting occasionally to home and falling asleep before any of his wives and children have had a chance to curry his attentions. Even if he is endlessly patient, the four wives and 28 children are really beginning to get to him: “He didn’t want to hear about whose junior league basketball game he’d forgotten, or what parent-teacher conference had been missed. He didn’t want to see another overdue utility bill or tax notice, didn’t want to take any more phone calls regarding feuding wives or lovesick teenage daughters or biblical plagues of chicken pox or pinkeye or flu that were always lurking just out of sight, waiting to bring the family to its knees,” Udall writes.

As it turns out it’s not just the family that is making Golden tired. As luck would have it, he falls in love with his boss’s wife, a Guatemalan immigrant named Huila. Golden is initially attracted to her because he finds her to be the only one around who will actually listen to him.

Author Bradley Udall, who himself can trace his ancestry back to polygamy, trains his sights on three central characters—Golden, the youngest wife, Trish, and 11-year-old Rusty. By illuminating their circumstances, he manages to capture the many facets of such a large family.

Trish, who has known of no other way of life than the one she is living now, might be the youngest and the prettiest but she is also the one most ignored by Golden. Unmoored by her husband’s total lack of attention, she takes comfort in the attention shown her by a wandering mechanic, June. Then there’s Rusty, who harbors a crush on Trish, and often visits her just to hang around. As June’s interest in Trish grows, she is conflicted by her desire for attention and the teachings of her church, which would not forgive her straying.

Even if the protagonist looms large (both literally and figuratively) on every page, it is 11-year-old Rusty who is the scene-stealer. His desperate attempts at trying to figure out his place in the teeming household are heartwarming and heartbreaking. Constantly ignored and always misunderstood, the family “terrorist” falls through the cracks completely. It’s one of the unfortunate effects of being one of 28 all vying for attention. In one wrenching scene, the boy is waiting for his father to get home so he can show him a certificate of honor he earned at school. For the eternal prankster, this certificate is a huge deal. “For the boy, it is terribly simple: all his father needs to do is come home and remark kindly on the boy’s certificate. It won’t take much, maybe a smile, a squeeze of the shoulder, and the boy will go to bed happy and all will be well,” Udall writes. But of course, Golden never shows.

Eventually as the boy gets increasingly desperate at some attention, the story takes a darker turn and the narratives of Golden, Huila, Trish and Rusty merge into a seamless plotline.

What one doesn’t see readily in The Lonely Polygamist is exactly how Golden Richards can afford such a large family or how they make do when his finances are on the brink of disaster. There is a hint at social services and hand-me-downs but it’s a question I could not shake as I read through. Udall also doesn’t directly address the religion or the controversial aspects of polygamy here.

By instead focusing exclusively on the family dynamics, he succeeds in showing the reader just how similar all families—no matter their size—can be. Despite the novel’s size at 600 pages, the pacing is fairly taut. And even if this is a tale of a family, Udall spares us melodrama right until the slightly pat ending. Empathy always works in fiction and it works wonderfully in The Lonely Polygamist. When Golden Richards struggles with the “strangling anxiousness” that is a part of him, he is no different from any other middle-aged married man worrying about his family and how he is going to make ends meet.

There is a part of the Richards family in all of us—especially the struggle to make something meaningful out of life all while making it through just another ordinary day.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 94 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (May 3, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Brady Udall
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Bookslut interview with Brady Udall

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: If you want to know more about the Mormon Church, The Firsts, then and now… and told in a really great way:

The 19th Wife by David Ebersoff (amazon)

Bibliography:


July 21, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters

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