Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

   Golden Richards may have 4 wives and nearly 30 kids, but he still feels like something is missing.  That something is happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of control, and his search for these elusive emotions lead him down some very unexpected paths.  In the meantime, Golden's quest for personal validation requires him to make a few sacrifices, tell a whole bunch of lies, and keep a lot of secrets, which of course, leads to the slow detachment from his family.  With a large cast of interesting characters, The Lonely Polygamist is not really about Mormonism or polygamy - it's about a family pushed to their breaking point, facing challenges and struggles that many families deal with at one point or another - finances, time management, identity crises, health problems, marital stress, and communication barriers to name a few.  The Richards clan is just like any other dysfunctional family, except on a much larger scale, which means extensive consequences rippling through each member of the family in a way that makes balance and control nearly impossible. 

   I really loved reading this book.  I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn't taken three months to read it. I know I know...but it's been a busy semester and the 600+ pages of this novel sometimes seemed very intimidating.  So I put this book on hold for a while and picked it up again a few days ago.  I sped through the last 400 pages and then kicked myself for ever thinking that reading this chunkster would be a chore.  The Lonely Polygamist is an unforgettable family saga and yes, it is epic, but it moves very quickly unless you set it down for 2 1/2 months like I did.  I'm so ashamed! I don't even deserve a book blog!

   Anyway...Brady Udall grew up in a Mormon family and did extensive research on the aspects of polygamy (an estimated 40,000 people live polygamist lifestyles in the U.S.), so the story feels raw and grounded.  The characters are prismatic, but the novel only fully develops a handful of them (understandably).  My favorite character is Rusty Richards, Golden's 12 year old son who is kind of the oddball of the bunch.  His behavior includes: storing multiple objects in the waistband of his pants, snooping around in his sisters' underwear drawers, an affinity for romance novels, bombs, and guns, and a pretty big crush on his aunt Trish. In short, Rusty is curious, mischievous, and defiant - all characteristics of a boy beginning puberty in the midst of family chaos.  Rusty provides most of the comic relief in the story as his sense of physical awakening and self-discovery parallels his father's own journey.

   We all know how the world sees polygamists (just look at the buzz around TLC's show, Sister Wives or the public interest in the Warren Jeffs trial).  Polygamy harbors a fundamental aspect of marriage and family life that is so foreign and unknown to most of us.  So what do we do when we don't understand something as a society?  We become voyeurs.  Well, Brady Udall has put this family under a microscope for the voyeur in us all, and they're really not so different from the rest of us.  And while I don't think that writing (or reading) this book should be synonymous with condoning the polygamist lifestyle, I think Brady Udall has attempted to and succeeded in providing us with a new perspective on family dynamics.