I am happy to report, that despite the fact that the plot had me worried, Udall is such a great writer that it didn't matter. I was hooked, and I have to say, this was quite a page-turner...for literary fiction at least.
The plot of The Lonely Polygamist is fairly simple. Golden Richards is the head of a large family; 28 kids and 4 wives. He is going through a midlife crisis to match the size of his family. Business has kept him out of town for nights on end and the family is falling apart. Also, the death of one of his children is still haunting him.
The story opens with a great extended scene of life in the Richards' home. It goes back to look at how Golden got to where he is today. Then Udall begins to introduce the two other points of view which will tell the story of the downfall and the eventual steps to rebuild the Richards family.
This is where the book moves from good to great. Golden's 4th wife, Trish and his most emotionally troubled 11-yr old son, Rusty, take turns, with Golden, telling their stories. Pieced together, this is a tragic story; we are watching a slow-motion train wreck here, but it is with genuine characters. It is the inner struggle of these richly drawn characters that drives the story. The more we learn about them, the more steam the story picks up, and the action follows.
I haven't even mentioned any of the particulars of said action, but trust me, you don't want me to ruin it. This is a book that begs to be experienced, not just read.
Warning, things do not turn out well for all 33 members of the Richards family, but as a unit, the family has healed and found peace by the novel's conclusion, and, after 600+ pages of living with them, you the reader are also satisfied. It is an open but resolved ending.
As of right now, The Lonely Polygamist is running even with Await Your Reply as the best book I have read so far this year. Why? This is a believable story of life on the fringes with flawed but intriguing characters.While the huge cast could have been distracting, by focusing on 3 points of view, the story has both focus and variety. When one story line is starting to wane, another one picks up. I haven't even mention the great writing, the amazingly described desert landscapes, and the great characters.
Three Words to Describe This Book: character-centered, family dysfunction, complex
[Notice I didn't include polygamy here. It really is not at the center of why someone would or would not like this book.]
Readalikes: In an enthusiastic review of Udall's novel in Library Journal these readalike suggestions were offered, "Think of the zany theatrics of Carl Hiaasen paired with the family drama of Elizabeth Berg." I don't disagree with the thought that is your could smush Hiaasen and Berg together you would get a book very similar to The Lonely Polygamist; however, this cannot actually be done, and an individual book by either author may or many not reliably appeal to a Udall fan. I am a great example of this theory, as I love Udall, always, mostly like Hiaasen, and only sometimes like Berg.
Other reviewers have said that Udall's complex family story is reminiscent of Tolstoy, while others have mentioned John Irving. These readalike suggestions I feel are going to be more reliable.
The books and authors that came to my mind as possible readalike suggestions upon completion of this novel were (with reasons in parentheses):
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (family dysfunction)
- Niagara Falls All Over Again (quirky and complex tale of a life lived on the fringes of normal)
- Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (landscape, family dysfunction, violence)
- Leif Enger (western landscape, quirky, lyrical, and complex family tales; in fact, Peace Like a River is a great readalike suggestion here.)
And of course there are the comparisons to the TV show Big Love, but really, The Lonely Polygamist is much, much better, and much more complex. While Big Love is about the life of a polygamist, The Lonely Polygamist is about a life, actually it is more specifically about 3 lives within one large family.
Oh, and if you are one of the only people left in the world who I haven't told this to, go out and read Udall's The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. It really is one of the best books I have ever read.