All the Little Live Things

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An evocative picture of a time and a place. So, a review. Where to even start?

All the Little Live Things (Contemporary American Fiction)

How about here, with the front flyleaf material of the first edition, to set the story up, and to give me a lead in adding a very few thoughts of my own. Why does the older generation feel as it does about what is happening in the world today? Wallace Stegner answers the question, with sympathy and understanding, for one good human individual trying to come to terms with his world while retaining his own integrity. In a novel that probes deeply into this and other aspects of contemporary life, he shows his narrative skill, his great gifts of evocation, and his eloquent intelligence at their mature best.

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But yes, in this case, not overstated. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects. Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son.

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Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them. The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel.

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Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed.

For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term. Please read. Very much worthy of exploration, I think. I have several more waiting as well.


An excellent writer with staying power, if this book is anything to go by. Adding this one to my book list. Comments RSS. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account.

All the Little Live Things - Exclusive Books

Think of the new books that arrive in the bookstore or online every week as a wave crashing onto the sand. Next week, there will be another wave, and after that another, ad infinitum. In the case of the classics, a fair number of them are chiefly of sociological or historical interest, or notorious now because they were at some distant point in time denounced from the pulpit as pornographic or because they broke new stylistic ground that probably should have remained unbroken. Somewhere between the books with the big reputations and sales, and the flotsam that fills bookshelves one week only to float away the next, are wonderful, half-buried beauties that far too few readers even know exist.

In this column, I plan to take a purely personal look at some of the better but lesser-known books of the twentieth century that are in danger of being buried under the sands of time for reasons unconnected to their excellence. I prefer a less systematic, more ad hoc, and more idiosyncratic, approach.

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  • This attribute, unfortunately, has proven to be utterly irrelevant to its literary reputation, which is hardly extant. Indeed, the agent, Joe Allston, has retired with his wife to an Edenic California sanctuary to escape not only the publishing industry but also memories of the death of their only son.

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    Here, the cranky and curmudgeonly Allston imagines, at least at first, that he can find peace, but is beset almost immediately by the horrors of mortality and the natural world. The horrors of the natural world? My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grown darker and bitterer.

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