Review: The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall

I have always had a bit of a weakness for sprawling family dramas so when I read the cast of characters in this one, it was really always only a matter of time.  The Lonely Polygamist tells the tale of Golden, a man with four wives and close to thirty children.  And oh yes, he’s started having an affair with his boss’ wife.  Yet, it’s not hard to have sympathy for him because this is a man crushed under the weight of a family grown beyond any possible management.  Polygamy has always looked absolutely ghastly but this book really makes it seem like a bad option for a man – what sane man would want four wives badgering him constantly?

Golden’s loneliness is very believable; he never settles at home because he doesn’t get to sleep in the same bed two nights running, he doesn’t want to give too much attention to any individual wife because of the risk of provoking jealousy, then he daren’t show affection to any of his children for the same reason.  The saddest part for me was the tragic tale of his late disabled daughter who he was able to love best because nobody would begrudge her that Daddy affection when her life was filled with such suffering.  It was so painfully clear that certain of the other children, specifically eleven year-old Rusty, needed more love than they were being given and indeed as the plot develops, this inevitably leads to further tragedy.  Rusty comes across as irritating and a definite ‘problem child’ but you still have enormous sympathy for him, he is just as much a lonely polygamist as his father.

The four wives were nicely drawn with a believable power-play going on between them all, although it did feel that Trish got a lot of screen time.  The other three had so many children they presumably had no time for an interior life.  One of the main strengths of the novel for me were the anecdotes sprinkled throughout which gave the story a greater emotional weight; like the three Stooges (three of the wives had had a baby within a few months before, these boys were best friends and known as the Stooges), Golden’s recollection of the nightmare of feeding all three was funny and realistic.  By the end of it, I was rooting for the family to find peace and some semblance of unity; if ever there was a family that needed to start pulling together it was this one.
Criticisms … it’s set in the 1970s but seems to be set then more in the spirit of writing a time without Google and mobile phones rather than to be set in the 1970s.  All that is fine, it just irritates me a bit how much more that happens now, rather than the author facing up to technology, they just decide to be a Luddite.  Plus, there was a strange aside about a nuclear attack that felt like a bit of a non-sequitur even though it fitted in with causing the various health issues (sort of) I just didn’t see the point of it.  Also, although the author delivered the central idea well and portrayed the power dynamics behind this huge and complicated family very convincingly, the cast of characters didn’t feel particularly fleshed out, even though Udall succeeded in making them seem intriguing.  I felt that he could have made the book longer to give a bit more away, but then I suppose that that was rather the point; with a family that unwieldy and disparate, how on earth would you get to know everyone?
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The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
Published by Random House on March 31st 2013
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 608
ISBN: 9781446477670

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