No one can strip a marriage down to find the twinging nerve like Wallace Stegner, but he does it with such a deft and gentle touch that it is beautiful to observe. In the case of The Spectator Bird, which won the 1977 National Book Award, Stegner combined his marital vivisection with an elaborate backstory about a family of faded Danish aristocrats trying to live down their scandalous past.
Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, feels he has gone through his life as a spectator, falling into his career, his marriage, friendships, and fatherhood without much conscious effort on his part. But Joe and his wife Ruth have lived with a pebble in the shoe of their marriage for twenty years, ever since an extended trip to Denmark following the death of their son. When an unexpected postcard from their Danish friend startles Joe out of his grouchy retirement funk, Ruth uses the opportunity to finally learn what happened all those years ago. For the first time, Joe is forced into an active, thinking role in his long-enduring marriage.
Stegner uses Joe's journal from their Denmark trip to move back and forth between the Allstons' current life as affluent retirees on the stormy California coast south of San Francisco and the remarkably gothic story of the Danish aristocrats with whom they became entangled. In between late night sessions of Joe reading the journal to Ruth, they deal with the disruptions of daily life – bad news about a neighbor, storm damage, and an unexpected visit from one of Joe's eccentric former clients.
Combining Stegner's elegant composition with a terrific plot, curmudgeonly humor, and spot-on set pieces about growing old, sex in contemporary fiction, and the "homeland" myths of second-generation immigrants, The Spectator Bird is the rare page-turner that lingers.
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The Spectator Bird is my favorite read of the year so far and I can't see anything replacing it. It may make my all-time Top 10 list if I can think of what to bump off it. It is an incredible, wonderful, entertaining novel.
It also counts as one of my two National winners for the 2012 Battle of the Prizes, American Version. There is still time to sign up for this challenge, which involves reading only three or four books. Click the link above or the badge below for details.