The novel is set in and around the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia and covers the period from 1910 when the protagonist, Stoner, first enters university, until his death in 1956.
Stoner is an only child in a lonely household, where he and his parents work from dawn to dusk eking out a meagre living from the barren, unrelenting land. On finishing high school, his surprisingly forward-looking parents enrol him into the University of Missouri to study agriculture. English literature is a required element of the course and Stoner has a ‘Damascus’ moment, realising that this is where his future lies.
During the course of his studies, Stoner teaches himself Latin and Greek whilst working on the farm of his mother’s cousin from early each morning until late at night, in return for bed and board. Despite these hardships, Stoner achieves his doctorate and becomes a junior teacher at the university.
The actor, Tom Hanks, comments in Time magazine:
‘It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.’
This succinct statement says it all. Stoner marries the wrong woman, yet stoically overcomes continuous, frustrating obstacles to keep his life together. The political intrigue and infighting amongst the university faculty are as gripping and emotive as any thriller. In fact, I have never been so emotionally involved with any protagonist: empathasing with Stoner’s frustration, anger, disappointment and heartbreak, and feeling absolute elation when any small victory is achieved. When Stoner finally finds love with a colleague, the reader shares his joy, but again due to the close-knit gossip-mongering of academia, this fulfillment is short lived.
Each protagonist is finely drawn, with the possible exception of Stoner’s arch enemy, Lomax. whose motivation is often unclear. The narrative is beautifully written with outstanding descriptive passages.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who loves literature. America has long awaited ‘The Great American Novel’. In my opinion this novel, which elevates an ordinary life into something universal, is a prime candidate.
Elsie Bickerstaff, Thursday Evening Book Club