Book Review: The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall
The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall (published in 2010), is a masterpiece of a novel, pulling us not only inside a less than familiar family situation -- one of polygamy -- but also managing to connect the reader with universal family themes. Even if you've never met a polygamist (I haven't), there's plenty in here that any parent can relate to -- feeling overwhelmed by children, being pushed and pulled about by your spouse, sensing that everything is falling apart.
The story of The Lonely Polygamist is set in the late 1970s in southern Utah (near the Nevada border). The father, Golden Richards, has four wives, 28 children, and 3 houses. It's not a situation he pursued. He just sort of floated along in life and ended up in it. His first wife seems to make most of these decisions, arranging the additional marriages and determining the house order and protocols.
It appears that Udall attempts to explore several ideas in The Lonely Polygamist:
- How can a man who is surrounded by family -- 28 children and 4 wives -- be lonely?
- How can a polygamist family have the same challenges and struggles as a normal family?
- How is loneliness experienced from different points of view in the same family -- from children and wives, not just the father?
- What conditions pull a man from relative passivity, being pushed and pulled by others around him, to a lead actor who directs and guides his life with his own choices?
- How does one escape loneliness and connect with others?
- How is polygamy not about sex?
Through the novel, we see Golden move from someone who is acted upon to someone who acts for himself. And that transformation gives the novel its main story arc. But what I most liked about the book is the basic family themes. These themes just seemed to resonate, even despite the differences in lifestyle. I think this is the brilliance of the book – to take a lifestyle and perspective that is unfamiliar (polygamy) and make it universal.
In the Amazon reviews, it's clear that some readers weren't able to get past the polygamy theme in this book. But it's much less about polygamy and more about family and male mid-life crisis. The polygamy is in the background, almost as culture to give the book some intrigue. The same story could have taken place without the polygamous component, but then it wouldn't have achieved so much.
Udall always keeps the book light, and though at times the themes of alienation, loneliness, a sense of being overwhelmed, and adultery can become a bit dark, the book maintains a humor about it that is characteristic of Udall. You can see this same lighthearted tone in Udall's other works -- Letting Loose the Hounds, and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (also excellent works). In the Amazon interview with Udall, Udall notes that he tries to emphasize the comedic aspects of nearly every situation he writes about. In The Lonely Polygamist, even as Golden is about to commit adultery with Huila, the scene contains one misstep after another, and we laugh as quickly as we're turning pages.
What I like about Udall's writing is the way he paints and develops his characters. The characters are the stories, and even in The Lonely Polygamist, though at times I was frustrated by Golden's passiveness and his lack of self-direction, he was a character I cared about. Having completely imaginary characters that both the reader and writer care about seems to be one of the main challenges of writing fiction. Udall says he spent time living with a polygamous family to research the book, so this research no doubt informed the character sketches and stories.
I don't read a lot of fiction, but I can't seem to get enough of Brady Udall's writing. Maybe it's the frequent but unobtrusive Mormon themes in his stories and novels that seems to make the content relevant. Mormons don't practice polygamy, so the Lonely Polygamist doesn't address Mormon culture (but rather Fundamentalist Mormon culture). Still, there's some relevance through history. At any rate, he's found a way to write about a culture without coming across as either offensive or preachy. He says he worked on The Lonely Polygamist for about 6 to 7 years. I hope it's not that long until his next novel is released.
About Tom Johnson
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