Stoner by John Williams

Summary ~ William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.

What a perfectly dreary day to finish a perfectly dreary book.  It had been a while since I read and loved Revolutionary Road and I was hoping to discover a book of similar depth and sadness that would also garner a satisfying read.  I found it in Stoner by John Williams.  I thoroughly enjoyed the story of William “Bill” Stoner though it wasn’t a happy one most of the time.  Born to Missouri farmers, Stoner discovers while attending college in Columbia, MO for agriculture that his love is literature and so his life takes a turn away from his humble upbringing and moves towards a life of teaching at the university he has grown to love and depend on.

Life is difficult for Stoner though he has chosen a path that he wants to follow.  He meets Edith, a prim and proper young woman visiting family in Columbia and feels sensations and feelings for her that he had never experienced before.  That is not always a good thing to start a marriage with and he soon learns that the woman he married is not a partner in anyway to him.  Edith was down right awful in my opinion and the misery she brought to Stoner’s simple life was challenging to read about at times because I just felt so sorry for him.  After a sudden desire to have a child brings the couple together physically in false passion for the only period their marriage ever knows, she suffers from immense postpartum depression and Stoner takes on the role of “care-giver” for their daughter Grace. 

Life moves on for Stoner though and his professional and paternal roles fulfill him for a while.  Soon though things start to falter.  Problems arise at the university in the form of a wild student who creates such chaos in Stoner’s life that his career never quite recovers.  Edith returns from her depression and turns her husband’s simple life upside down and emotionally separates Grace from him.  One of the few bright lights in Stoner’s life occurs during his middle age and takes the shape of a co-ed student.  They have a torrid love affair and Stoner finally learns about love and passion that is true and meaningful and not twisted in the least. 

John Williams’ writing is vivid and sets the perfect feel for the book.  Published in 1965 I found it interesting to read about an earlier time but told by an author at an earlier time still than the present day I live in.  There were a couple of slow points in the narrative but they moved along and the story came to life once again.  Overall, Stoner gave me just what I was looking for.  A story and character that took me into a familiar yet distant time in America and kept my attention from beginning to end and left me with a memory of emotions, events and ideas that will stay with me.  Reading Stoner was sad at times but isn’t that life?  A roller coaster of emotions, events and ideas that make us the interesting beings we are.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

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