The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a surprisingly fantastic book. Udall has a wonderful writing style and command of descriptions that are just phenomenal. The story is, as the first lines state, a story about a polygamist who has an affair. The story is told through the eyes of one of the 28 children (Rusty), one of the 4 wives (Trish), and the patriarch (Golden). Through these three lenses you get a glimpse at the common family problems in a family of uncommon size and complexity.
I heard about this book on several occasions but was reluctant to read it. Why? The only explanation is that I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Mormon Church). Although my church has a history of polygamy, it was discontinued many years ago and anyone currently practicing polygamy is excommuncated. The modern practice of polygamy is usually portrayed on the Jerry Springer show and with various raids on compounds of people accused of horrible practices against women and children. The fear of being associated with a practice that we don't believe in and the wrongdoing associated with the compounds forces many, myself included, to avoid any association with polygamy. I worried about the reaction if anyone found out what I was reading or saw the title and made an assumption. My fears, in retrospect, were ridiculous. I'm glad that they did not keep me from finally reading this book because it was an excellent read.
Golden's struggles to provide for his family's physical, spiritual, and emotional needs leads him to lust after a woman representing a life outside the one he has chosen. Golden remains sympathetic, despite his indiscretions, because his backstory contains unhappiness, compromises, and sacrifices made along the way that make his personal failings seem forgivable. As a reader, I felt that his heart was in the right place even when his actions indicated otherwise. The author cleary shows that Golden loves his family and never doubts his beliefs; even if he has difficulties in its practice. As and husband and father, I can relate to the challenge of meeting your responsibilities despite limited resources, time, ability, and enthusiasim.
Trish grew up in a polygamist compound and when she leaves with her mother for the "normal" world finds that life on the outside can be just as miserable when you have an abusive husband. Trish returns to polygamy as Golden's fourth wife but feels forgotten among the crowd and longs for the days when boys competed for her attention rather than her begging for Golden's attention. I'm sure that many women feel, or have felt, forgotten by busy husbands despite not having "sister wives" to commiserate with.
Rusty is a troublemaker child seeking attention among the 28 other children and never seems comfortable or suited for the life he was born into. The normal struggles of an awkward young boy are amplified by his unusal family situation. As the oldest of eight children, I remember the frustration of competing for attention among a crowded arena of other siblings.
All the characters are well developed and feel like real people. The family dynamic presented is so common that the fact that they are polygamist can sometimes fade into the background. The story moves at a comfortable pace, especially given that there is very little action built into the family drama storyline. The everyday life descriptions are compelling because the struggles of each character keeps you wondering if one of the faltering peices of this family will destroy the whole unit. Also, as Golden gets closer to the line that would tear his faith and family apart, his 4 wives and 28 children are put in jeopardy. Despite the seemingly dysfunctional nature of the family, you believe that the family would suffer from losing the complicated life they have learned to love. This raises the stakes for the reader throughout the story.
Udall has a true gift for describing characters and events with details and similes that are dead-on accurate. One of my favorites was describing men singing hymns in church as rolling the words around in their mouths like an old piece of gum they are trying to dispose of. I have both sung and heard hymns sung exactly in that manner. This is one of the most interesting, and well written, books I have read in a long time.