In the last few months I've read both Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose and Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. The juxtaposition of these novels was accidental, but it's given me a lot to think about. Each novel is narrated by an abnormal man digging for courage and wisdom in the story of his pioneering grandparents. In Middlesex, the grandparents move from Greece and find their home in Detroit; Angle of Repose describes an East Coast woman's struggle to adjust to life in the Rockies.
Of course, the comparisons break down quickly. Stegner's protagonist's physical problems only emerged late in life, leaving him crippled and isolated from the outside world; Middlesex's Cal has an unusual genetic feature that's invisible to casual observers. And Cal strives resolutely to bridge past and future, while Angle's Lyman Ward sees the West he loves as having largely disappeared, replaced by the noxious culture of the Sixties.
It's impossible to read Angle of Repose without wanting to learn more about Mary Hallock Foote, the real-life basis for the character of Susan Beecher Ward. The book uses sections of her letters and memoirs, and these provide some really lovely passages. But Stegner brings his A game too, and I'm a sucker for the sorts of landscapes he spends plenty of time describing. It helps that a good chunk of the book takes place in Leadville, Colorado, which I visited this summer.
As for Middlesex, it's hard to imagine how a book could do more to inspire empathy for a character with a condition that many readers will find very icky at the outset. I held off on Middlesex for years because I thought of it was a "novel about a hermaphrodite" -- but it's not that; it's a novel about a person and a family. Eugenides, unfortunately, is less likely than Stegner to draw the curtain of propriety. Still, it's a large-hearted book and a good read.
I'm suddenly curious about the genre of three-generations-of-a-family novels. It's a subheading, I suppose, of family saga novels. On a first thought, Dickens and Austen didn't write them. When did they start appearing?