While this is a saga of two families and in terms of plot could be considered a murder mystery, it bears no resemblance to any ordinary mystery of that sort. Themes first explored by Wilder in his youth in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (especially how random events impact human lives and how courageously/foolishly/creatively/selfishly each of us copes with fortune or adversity) are here revisited in his last novel. One of Wilder's greatest gifts was his patience and deft skill in developing characters. We come to know his protagonist along with the protagonist BECOMING the complex individual he or she is. That is surely the case here with John Ashley, Eugenia, Beata, Roger and most appealingly with young Sophia. At the beginning, all of these are young, unformed; but we come to know and love them as they are formed, hurt, tempered by the events of their lives.
My only complaint is that the novel probably moves too slowly for many readers. Because Wilder felt the need to explore the origins of his characters, their early lives and the influences that caused them to become who they are, well past the mid-point of the narrative he reaches all the way back to Ashley's student days in Hoboken; this may be necessary for us to fully appreciate John and Beata, it's a diversion and delay. Then Wilder repeats the process, taking us back to Eugenia's origin in the Caribbean. All of this would try the patience of some readers, were it not for the depth of personality that Wilder thereby achieves. We come to understand the steadfastness of Beata and Eugenia in their adult years as they cope with the emotional and social chaos engendered by the events that befall them and their families.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his novelettes The Cabala and Woman of Andros, written early in Wilder's life were all spare and succinct. As a brilliantly successful playwright, Wilder understood that he could rely upon the skill of actors and directors to convey the depth and nuances of his personae. I sense that in writing this novel late in his life, he felt compelled to be his own thespian, director, stage manager; consequently, this is a big novel, he covers all the bases.
It's far from perfect but certainly meets the objective of the "Great American Novel".
Reading Wilder reminds us of what great writing can be - the art of form, inspirational, idealistic, and insightful - all wrapped up in a good story.
1968 National Book Award - Fiction
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