2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – Stoner by John Williams

Genre: Literary fiction, Classic, College

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1965

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stoner tells the life story of William Stoner from the moment he starts agricultural college to his death some fifty years later. It covers his marriage, the birth of his first child, his affair and his sometimes painful relationships with his fellow lecturers. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This was a reasonable read. It is certainly well-written. A lesser writer probably couldn’t have pulled off writing such an ordinary story. But for all that, I didn’t always find the life of William Stoner captivating. Like most lives, there were ups and downs, times of excitement and times of quiet, so the story wasn’t always that interesting.

Stoner wasn’t exactly captivating either. He was a hard character to love. He was reserved, finding little in the way of joy in anything other than his work as a teacher. His marriage is difficult and his wife outright unpleasant. Although he clearly loves his daughter, Grace, and spending time with her, he finds himself constantly out-maneuvered by his wife so much so that he gets to spend little quality time with Grace. He rarely fights back and I found myself wishing he would stand up for himself more.

There were a couple of moments when I found the novel more compelling. When Stoner fails a student with some physical disabilities because he has failed to do any of the work, he clashes with one of his fellow lecturers, Hollis Lomax, who also has physical disabilities. Stoner finds things he has said and done come back to bite him and make him seem like he wanted the student to fail because he was disabled when really Stoner was holding him to the same standards that he held all his students. This leads to lifelong hatred between the two professors which was never less than interesting to read about.

Also, some of the most beautiful prose comes about when Stoner has an affair with a younger teacher at the university. This feels like the one true moment of happiness for Stoner – perhaps the life he should have had if he hadn’t been so hasty in his marriage. Of course, this relationship does not last, largely due to Lomax and his need for revenge on Stoner. Even then, Stoner does not fight for the relationship but lets it slip from his grasp.

Ultimately, this is a novel about the fulfilment of work and literature. In fact, Stoner’s love of literature and of teaching would seem to be the things that lift his life beyond the ordinary. Everything else in his life ends up being a failure.

I can understand why this has had a resurgence in popularity recently. It is beautifully written and it really isn’t anything like a modern novel with its simple tale of one man’s journey through life but, in the end, it just didn’t quite thrill me enough.

 

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