What indefinable quality haunts the first few lines of a truly masterful, classy book? How come you sometimes know, just a few sentences in, that you have entered a safe, timeless zone, in which something magical is about to happen? Two paragraphs into Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and I had that infallible premonition of a luminous, sensitive story ahead, but I didn’t expect the quality of emotion that Stegner would be capable of bringing to his tale. I can’t remember the last time I shed so many tears over a book and just thinking about it now makes me feel ready to dissolve. Still, you know me for the intrepid literary critic I am, and I won’t let a few heart-wrenching sobs come between me and a review.
Crossing to Safety is the story of a friendship between two couples, and their entwined journeys through the divine benevolence and the bitter cruelty of life. Written from the perspective of the modern day and old age, Larry Morgan, now a successful writer, travels back to the past and the places where his life began, teaching English, grafting at stories, starting a family with his wife, Sally. When they arrive at the University of Wisconsin, they are rapidly befriended by the rich and vibrant couple, Sid and Charity Lang. It would seem that the Langs have everything – money, security, love, children, success – and it becomes apparent that they want nothing more than to share those things with the poor but talented and hopeful Morgans. Yet as their friendship deepens, so Sally and Larry notice the complexities of the Lang’s relationship. Sid’s most heartfelt desire is to be a poet, but Charity, herself the daughter of a hugely successful academic, wants Sid to have academic ambitions. Charity’s family is dominated by the matriarchal line, and Charity herself, full of energy, hungry for life, a planner and organiser and general troop-rallier, has an iron will that seeks to help those she loves by breaking them first. This is a story of love, in all its many forms, and Charity’s tendency to domineer is represented as an overflowing of determined generosity, and an obsession with ‘doing things right’. She knows Sid better than he thinks he knows himself, and her need to project him onto a course that is not of his choosing, is at the same time a form of altruistic bullying that intends to get the best out of him.
This is not a narrative of high drama, although dramatic things happen, and it is not a story of tragedy, beyond the tragedies that are stitched inevitably into the fabric of existence. It’s the story that Charity challenges Larry to write, about good human beings living a normal life in a normal community and caring about the things that ordinary people do care for – family, education, friendship. In that way it’s nothing more (and extraordinarily, richly, vibrantly) the story of a marriage that could be any marriage.
‘Their intelligence and their civilised tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinated their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. They baffle their children because in spite of all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something and show it.
Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? Unanswered question, perhaps unanswerable. In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by so much as a punctuation mark.’
This is one of those most fascinating of marriages – a flawed one that works, with partners who fit themselves seamlessly to the fault line and hold onto it for all they are worth. Yet, inevitably, the crack will one day hurt, and when Charity is dying, it becomes apparent that her loving domination of Sid has left him no one to be without her. The scenes in which Sid faces – or finds he cannot face – Charity’s death are some of the most moving and heart-rending I think I’ve ever read. Is it really better, Larry muses, to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? If we knew what life held in store for us, would we ever be able to take the first step towards it? The event he is forced to witness makes Larry consider his own position. One of the things I loved most dearly about this book is the delicately drawn portrait of Larry’s marriage to Sally, a profoundly happy union, but a form of bondage nevertheless, for in those early days of friendship with the Langs, Sally contracts polio and is crippled. The question that Larry, the most honest and tender of narrator’s, poses to himself: can he live without Sally? is one that he never manages to answer. For of course he cannot and of course one day he must. How Larry and Sally come to terms with the blow fate deals them is never articulated but always implicit: their love for one another, and their friendship with Sid and Charity, are the lifelines that pull them through. Yet even these most wondrous and beautiful gifts will themselves become, eventually, inevitably, a source of pain. That’s the strength of this book – it pitches intense happiness and unbearable sorrow side by side and shows how they grow out of one another. It is transparent with a desire for honesty and truthfulness, properly respectful of the miracles of love, friendship and happiness, and intransigent on the measure of suffering that all lives must contain. It’s a book that ought to be required reading for all couples starting out on life, and it should be pretty high on everyone else’s reading list as well. But if you do pick it up, for heaven’s sake stock up on the tissues!