Review: Recapitulation

Recapitulation, Wallace Stegner. New York:Vintage, 2015, originally published in 1979.

Summary: When former ambassador Bruce Mason returns to Salt Lake City for the funeral of an aunt, long-forgotten memories of his youth come back to challenge how he has remembered this formative part of his life.

Memory is a funny thing. What we remember and how we remember former events and people are far from static. They are written and re-written, deleted and restored throughout our lives.

Bruce Mason is a successful former ambassador, still on call for delicate negotiations. It is how he is known, and knows himself. His youth in Salt Lake City has faded to the far recesses of his memories and thoughts. That is, until an aunt for whom he is a guardian passes and he must return as the last living relative to bury her.

When he arrives, he is given a package saved by his aunt. In it are a letter sweater, letters and mementos from Nola, his one serious relationship with a girl. He spends much of his short stay remembering her–how they met, were drawn to each other, the times they were intimate, and the choice he made to delay marriage to pursue law school, sending her pretentious but unfeeling letters, led her to break off the relationship and take up with Bailey, his sexually seductive friend.

He also gets a call from Joe, the high school friend who drew him out of the isolation enforced by his bootlegger father. He worked for Joe’s dad, who wanted to bring him into the business. Joe brought him into a social network that drew him out of his shell. He keeps putting off calling him back, visiting the house late at night but never connecting.

Other memories flood back. The tragic life of his brother. His bootlegger father who he could never satisfy and who constrained his youth, both in not interfering with clients and keeping hush-hush his illegal activity. His long-suffering mother, dying of breast-cancer while his father makes another “business trip.”

He walks and drives the streets, so changed from his youth, bringing back other memories. The aunt’s funeral, concluding the book, ends with a thunderstorm, in some ways cleansing away all the memories as Mason prepares to depart. Or does it?

We are left wondering about the connection between the person he was and the pain he had known, and the person he has become. How is the man he is now related to the youth he remembers. We wonder why he doesn’t want to see his best friend, and why he had not been in touch with this friend after he left Salt Lake City.

And reading this makes one wonder how we have edited our own memories of the past. What have we stuffed in a closet? What self have we crafted and cultivated in our adult lives? Some, it seems, spend most of their lives wistfully looking back on the years of their youth as “the best years of our lives” while others try hard to forget them? It seems to me that Stegner’s novel, for the latter group, underscores the truth that “you can’t go home again” and if you do, you better be prepared for what you may find.

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