The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall is a specific type of family saga: it’s the story of middle-aged Golden Richards, his four wives, and his numerous children as he’s going through a mid-life crisis. I had my doubts along the way because stories about a man’s mid-life crisis are not stories I seek out, but in the end, the pace picked up and I became invested in these frustrating characters.
The set-up for the story is the first draw. I’ve watched some of the seasons of the HBO show Big Love (and again, I’m not a fan of the polygamist husband and his mid-life crisis), and I’ve watched some news specials about polygamists. The draw is figuring out how a family with so many people and living in so many houses works.
The actual plot of The Lonely Polygamist involves Golden living away from his family when he works as a general contractor on the expansion of a brothel in Nevada. It involves his marital crisis (he becomes involved with another woman during the long stretches he’s away from home). The other main stories involve his fourth wife Trish, who is grieving the loss of her stillborn son Jack, and his twelve-year-old son Rusty, who clashes with his non-biological mother Beverly as well as his siblings. Udall captures the polygamist experience from the point of view of the husband, one of the wives, and one of the overlooked children.
I think it’s most interesting to look at this book as a study of how lonely everyone in a polygamist household can be. Being overlooked is unavoidable in a brood so large, especially if the parents are working away from home. This book has the added layer of the story of Trish and Golden’s grief at the children they’ve lost. Grieving, or not grieving, more accurately ,led to more estrangement between Golden and the rest of his family. The grief sections of the book are very strong and very affecting.
There were a couple drawbacks to the story: first, the character of Golden, and second all the female characters. First, I didn’t particularly like or feel sorry for Golden, as sad as his upbringing and his emotional stuntedness made him. I think it’s a case of the underdog being such a sad sack that I didn’t root for him. He was frustrating because he was so naïve about the feelings of those closest to him as well as so naïve about what he himself was feeling. Second, there is the problem of the female characters. Huila, Golden’s extra-marital love interest, is a very idealized character. We don’t spend that much time with three out of the four of Golden’s wives for them to be fleshed-out people: they are suffering, overburdened wives who spend all of their time caring for the rest of the family. That said, Udall does do a good job with the characters of Trish and Rusty. It’s an interesting premise for a book with a couple characters that drew me in.