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on 18 February 2017
William Stoner is an unremarkable man. He leads an unremarkable life, with an unremarkable wife, has an unremarkable career and dies an unremarkable death. That quite about sums up the structure of the book, but this is hardly a spoiler because while the novel is about Stoner, what I have described above is just the bare bones of the story.

Williams, through the unassuming and seemingly passionless and passive character of Stoner, paints a convincing portrait of a man who tries to find his place in the world. He wins some, and loses others in the process, as life deems fit to give or take from him. Quite early on in the novel, in his early days when he had quite fortuitously found a niche in the academic life at a university, his friend David Masters makes quite an accurate if unsolicited assessment of his personality and motivations: "you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky.... but you have the taint, the old infirmity.... You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you'd fight the world. You'd let it chew you up and spit you out, and you'd lie there wondering what was wrong."

In many ways, Stoner fulfils Masters's grim prophecy, but Williams paints Stoner with much empathy and we find ourselves cheering him on when he escapes certain fate as a farmhand to carve out a respectable if unremarkable career as a literature tutor at the university where he had originally gone for agricultural studies. It is the one time we see Stoner take control of his life with some passion. When he marries Edith, a girl he meets serendipitously at a hoary professor's party, we hold our breaths at how the marriage would pan out, with his uncertain nature and her ice-cold and suspiciously vacuous veneer. We feel pangs of both delight and sorrow when we see his unexpected joy at fatherhood and the way that joy is eroded by his own possessive and malicious wife. But even that is an oversimplification of the complex nature of what Stoner goes through, because the strength of Williams's writing is his nuancing. There is no easy distinction between good and nasty characters, or clearcut happiness and sadness.

The novel too, is also emblematic of its time. Stoner's life is bookended by two world wars and he is as much affected by them as the men and women of his time. His perspective of death as a young man is shaped by the war when it touches his own peers: "When he had thought of death before, he had thought of it either as a literary event or as the slow, quiet attrition of time against imperfect flesh. He had not thought of it as the explosion of violence upon a battlefield, as the gush of blood from the ruptured throat".

This is a very satisfying novel which moved me with its reposeful tone and simple yet exemplary prose. I am glad it found success, albeit belatedly after Williams's death. Definitely a worthy masterpiece.
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on 16 November 2015
This is the story of William Stoner, Missouri farmer's son who goes off to agriculture college and discovers, quite by accident, a passion for literature that changes the course of his life. Stoner is a quiet, self-contained, rather solitary man who embarks on an academic career at the University of Missouri. Opting not to volunteer for military service in World War I (like his two only friends from college), he makes a hasty and ill-considered marriage and eventually fathers a daughter. Stoner has a long-running feud with an English department colleague that throws a shadow over his career. He does enjoy one passionate extra-marital affair but declines the opportunity to leave his marriage for the woman he loves. Except for his decision to embrace academia rather than return to the family farm, and his clandestine love affair, Stoner's life seems marked by a theme of passivity... taking the path of least resistance. Rather than fight for his academic status and a
class schedule appropriate to his skill and scholarship, he accepts years of teaching freshman and sophomore required courses. Instead of leaving his desperately unhappy marriage for the woman he truly loves, he chooses to stay with his wife. And while moving to another university might have opened new horizons for him, he plods away at the University of Missouri his entire life. This is a thought-provoking and rather disturbing novel. I found myself constantly wondering about what may have happened if Stoner had only found the courage to resist, to embrace, to challenge, to explore, to confront, to dare. This fine novel deserves its status as an overlooked classic.
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on 9 June 2015

The main thing that frustrated me about this book was that it was all tell and no show and I prefer subtlety. Written in the third person but all from the perspective of the main character, it left much unexplored; I would have valued more on the motivations of characters such as Edith and Lomax. It annoyed me that all the villains had disabilities or mental health issues (Edith, Lomax, Walker).

The prose was very plodding and dull, like the character of Stoner himself. Normally when I read a book, I highlight passages of great writing but I found little here to appreciate apart from one observation on love which was fairly well written.

At least Stoner did attempt to review his life at the end, which provides a point to the book, but his positive conclusions (and those of the author) seem unsatisfactory to me. Stoner was just so passive and never really intervened to change difficult circumstances and I felt that he should have at least done more for his daughter. Treating his own life with resignation is possibly acceptable, but not when it impacts on someone for whom he is responsible.

I did enjoy the one part in which he does take an active part in changing his situation: when he decides to teach a class of freshmen material that is much too advanced for them so that Lomax has to intervene and provide Stoner with a better timetable.

I certainly didn't think that there was much to admire in the writing or in Stoner's character despite Williams calling him a 'hero' (introduction). He didn't seem to do much to try to understand his wife, to help his daughter or to reach out to his parents. Much of his teaching seemed mediocre because he couldn't express his inner passion, but his sense of a job is supposed to be something to admire in him. For these reasons, I don't agree with the author's assessment of his character and I am surprised that this book is so highly regarded.
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on 29 March 2017
This seemingly simple book is a beautiful, heartbreaking and gripping account of human emotions, challenges, disappointment and family relationships.

I nearly read it numerous times, but from reading the book description could not understand the hype. I finally decided to make my own kind up and read the novel in two days. I never mention the plot, but would rather say his style of writing, characters, sensitivity and subtlety is very hard to match and haven't read a book of similar quality and credibility since East of Eden.
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on 26 November 2016
A masterpiece of wonderful writing and wisdom. A work of genius that should be read by everyone. I can't imagine that I will ever find a book that I will enjoy as much as this one. So I will read it all over again, starting right now.
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on 11 July 2013
Surely the ultimate challenge for any author must be to take an unremarkable subject and make it seem so compelling that the reader cannot stop themselves from wanting to know more and more about it - only to ultimately feel a real sense of loss upon reaching the final word of the final paragraph on the final page.

John Williams achieves such a feat with apparent ease in this beautifully written book about the life of an ordinary man, and in doing so has reawakened my appetite for reading fiction. I only downloaded it out of curiosity, having heard it described and recommended so enthusiastically on the Today programme on Radio 4. I'm so glad I did!
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on 27 April 2017
In love with this book. Bought on a whim from a recommendation I saw online and I will be re-reading this book many times.
After finishing it left me with an empty feeling that it was over. I can't give it more praise than that. Poignant and beautiful.
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on 28 May 2017
An engaging start with characters reminiscent of 'American Gothic'. We'll developed and convincing characters who seemed unable to escape their backgrounds and childhood years. At times there was too much detail ( for the uninitiated )the arguments surrounding the teaching theories of English Literature. Overall a sad tale with some beautiful and reflective passages.
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on 12 May 2017
I started a bit sceptically, but then was utterly gripped. John Williams character description and depth of feeling for each one of the dramatis personae is so perceptive and real that you feel you get to know them intimately. He writes very engagingly in a deceptively easy and readable style. I found it difficult to put the book down.
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on 15 April 2017
The book is a good read but not life changing. Its well written but because it was written time ago the authors views on race are extremely difficult to digest. Stoner is a good guy who stands up for what he believes in and tries to do whats best for his family. This leads him to make some bad decisions.
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