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Publisher's Summary

William Stoner is born at the end of the 19th century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar's life, far different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a "proper" family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

John Williams's luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.

©1965 John Williams (P)2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Critic Reviews

“A perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away." (Morris Dickstein, New York Times Book Review )
“A masterly portrait of a truly virtuous and dedicated man.” (New Yorker)
“An exquisite study, bleak as Hopper, of a hopelessly honest academic at a meretricious Midwestern university. I had not known…that the kind of unsparing portrait of failed marriage shown in Stoner existed before John Cheever.” (Los Angeles Times)

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"What did you expect?" (in American academia)

Picture a typical epic fantasy story wherein a plucky hero with unique powers leaves his hometown to fight against the forces of evil to save the world. John Williams' historical novel Stoner (1965), about a thoughtful, diligent, and intelligent (but not brilliant) academic everyman who never travels, learns to drive, or becomes a full professor, would appear to be the opposite kind of story. According to the first paragraphs of the novel, William Stoner entered the University of Missouri at age 19 in 1910, earned his PhD and became an instructor there during WWI, and died in 1956 as an assistant professor mostly forgotten by students and colleagues. Why would anyone want to read a novel filling in the details of such a life!?

Such is John Williams' skill, empathy, and imagination, however, that from the moment Stoner has an epiphany in his sophomore survey of English literature class when his ironic professor Archer Sloane momentarily loses himself in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 and then asks him what the poem is saying to him over a span of three hundred years, and he can only raise his hands and utter an abortive, "It means," and so unwittingly falls in love with literature, we care for Stoner, so much so that reading his attempt to live for his love against overwhelming odds, including an inimical department chair, a nightmarish graduate student, a self-centered, unloving, and neurotic wife, and, of course, his own surface equanimity, diffidence, and indifference, becomes a page-turning and at times unbearably suspenseful adventure. Indeed, as Professor Sloane tells Stoner when he's trying to decide whether or not to go fight in World War I, "There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history," and Stoner's adult life and career are, finally, as heroic as that of any martial epic fantasy hero.

Williams excels at concisely writing historical backgrounds and human relationships, so that though the novel is less than three-hundred pages, it convincingly conveys everything from Stoner's special field (the Latin tradition and Medieval and Renaissance literature), a tense PhD oral preliminary examination (that brought back my own nightmarish memories), and his fraught relationship with his wife (the best Stoner can believe is that they've become "like old friends or exhausted enemies") to the cultural climate of big events like World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. (This is a quietly anti-war novel: "he saw hatred and suspicion become a kind of madness that swept across the land like a swift plague; he saw young men go again to war [in Korea], marching eagerly to a senseless doom, as if in the echo of a nightmare.")

Williams also writes vivid descriptions, of, for example, people:
"It was the face of a matinee idol. Long and thin and mobile, it was nevertheless strongly featured; his forehead was high and narrow, with heavy veins, and his thick waving hair, the color of ripe wheat, swept back from it in a somewhat theatrical pompadour. He dropped his cigarette on the floor, ground it beneath his sole, and spoke.
'I am Lomax.' He paused; his voice, rich and deep, articulated his words precisely, with a dramatic resonance. 'I hope I have not disrupted your meeting.'"

And wastelands:
"He lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him."

And southern evenings:
"The dogwoods . . . were in full bloom, and they trembled like soft clouds, translucent and tenuous, before his gaze. The sweet scent of dying lilac blossoms drenched the air."

Throughout, with irony and affection Williams expresses the hermetic yet vulnerable world of American academia, which, as Stoner's brilliant young graduate student friend puts it early on, is no ivory tower but an asylum or rest home for the infirm, for people who could never succeed in the real world outside.

Robin Field, does a fine reading of the audiobook, though perhaps the quality of his voice is too good at expressing sensitive fatigue.

Williams' novel, then, is anything but bleak and boring. His depiction of Stoner's evolution from an ignorant young man from a sterile farm with spindly chickens, boney cows, and prematurely aged parents into a university literature instructor unable to express in classes or papers what he most profoundly knew and finally into a middle-aged "teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man," able to communicate his love of literature, in which "the blackest and coldest print" could express the mystery of the mind and heart, is a quiet triumph. For all he has been saying with passion of mind and flesh throughout his career is, "Look! I am alive."

7 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Depressing

Any additional comments?

Everything that could go wrong it this guy's life does. Well written but I wanted to kick the main character in the butt, a victim to the events and people that make up his life.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Rs
  • 10-16-12

Not my cup of tea

What did you like best about Stoner? What did you like least?

A Sad story of a lonely man.I guess the book was just not my cup of Tea.Even though the book was well written I justI wanted to take Stoner out for Ice Cream. I thought that might Cheer him up.

6 of 9 people found this review helpful

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Stark and fine, sad and solitary

This is possibly the most depressing book I've ever read.

It's not grimdark, it's not maudlin or sentimental, it's not a hopeless tale of a broken life. It's the biography of a young farmboy who goes off to college to learn agricultural science, falls in love with English literature, and spends the rest of his life as an English professor. And through bad luck, principled refusal, and a certain amount of passivity, enters into a loveless embittered marriage, watches his career stagnate, his daughter become estranged, and everything he ever loved fall away like browning leaves. Except his love of literature, which never leaves him and is often his sole consolation across the long years.

The author, a former English professor, sets his novel in a university much like the one where he taught, though he assures his former colleagues in the foreword that it is entirely fictional. His familiarity with the ins and outs of university life and the vicious nature of academia (as the old saying goes, the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so small) bring Stoner to life in hushed academic vivacity.

William Stoner, a tall, lanky young man, has the beginnings of a promising career when he sets out on his academic path. The publication of his first book heralds what the rest of his life will be like - it is received as a "competent" work by reviewers. It would be easy to say that Stoner is a tale of frustrated mediocrity, except that Stoner the man is vividly self-aware, aware even that he has the potential for something more that he will never quite achieve.

First it's his wife, Edith, a pale, tall, awkward girl from an affluent family, whom Stoner woos and wins because she can't seem to think of a good reason to say no. And from the moment of their wedding night, it's a disaster, his marriage to this spiritless, unhappy woman who will first be swallowed in depression and then wage subversive war against her husband, seeing that he has no peace or solitude at home, no comfort at her side, no hope of moving on to a better opportunity, and worst of all, when she sees that their daughter takes after her father with quiet, devoted seriousness, goes about driving a wedge between them and in the process destroys her daughter's spirit as well.

At work, in one of the few moments when Stoner stands his ground, against an unqualified, farcically unprepared graduate student pushed forward for a doctorate by one of his colleagues, this turns into the defining millstone of his career, because it makes his colleague, who will soon thereafter become the Department Chair, a bitter enemy. And so Stoner will spend the next 20 years with a superior who despises him and sees to it that nothing good ever comes his way.

In the end, William Stoner stands tall and alone, stooped by years and adversity, but never quite defeated. He has stood on his principles and suffered for them. He has had the chance to take the easy way out more than once, and never has, never abandoned his responsibilities or his promises, no matter how much they cost him. He is a man alone and apart.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Deeply Moving

This book was recommended by several people whose opinions I respect. For the first third, I wasn't sure. A quiet book about an unassuming man whose life is plagued by disappointment. By the end, I was so gripped I couldn't stop listening, and was moved to tears. In fact, the last chapter is one of the most powerful I can think of, all in its quiet way. The narrator is perfect, and he reads with a subtle dignity that matches the character and the novel. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Singularly depressing...

Stoner's life was a depressing ride. Not much joy in his life. As he lays on his deathbed he sums up his life well - career was halfhearted, marriage to a semi crazy woman a failure, daughter ends up distant and messed up, his moment of love was brief. If this sounds good, read this book. I forced myself to finish this one.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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A distant closeness

Any additional comments?

"I thought I could do it quietly without upsetting anyone."<br/><br/>How much of life do you lose if you never impose on anyone else? How much selfishness should you indulge in, drag others into? Can you ever really be alive by always being polite, never being a bother, letting life carry you along like driftwood? These were some of the questions, and hard truths I had to face while reading this remarkable novel. And I use the word remarkable not because I want to toss a superlative around, but because the book is remarkable. In fact I think a case could be made for this almost forgotten novel to be considered in the conversation of Great American Novels.<br/><br/>Stoner is a unique literary 'hero'. He is an American mid-western farm boy from a hardworking, moral farm family. In a Steinbeck novel the Stoner's would be backdrop, the sort of family he'd mention in passing as being one of the unspoken for millions America is made up of: the hard working, quiet, self sufficient, good and decent Americans who are the salt of the earth. Yet William Stoner is different; he's a man apart. Though he knows farm life, he's not particularly attracted to or interested in it, he only does it because life has, until yet, not offered him anything else. But when he's given the chance to go to college he discovers he has a passion you wouldn't normally attribute to the farm: a love of literature. He discovers he is not a man meant to bend his back all day, but to use his mind instead.<br/><br/>This discovery occurs suddenly, without warning and from a man long dead. It is William Shakespeare who almost literally speaks to him. "Do you hear him?" Professor Sloane asks him in class. Shakespeare speaks to you across three centuries. Shakespeare has imposed himself on Stoner, has grabbed hold of him, and changed his life.<br/><br/>But this is not the story of a man necessarily bettered by the experience of discovering education and art. Though Stoner decides to pursue a life of education and teaching, you sometimes wonder what his life would have been like had he not made this discovery. Would he have wound up like his parents, perhaps, but when WW1 broke out he may have gone over to France and not come back, or come back a changed man. There's a lot of potential 'what ifs' at the beginning of one's life.<br/><br/>And this book is all about potential. <br/><br/>That's why it's so startling at the end of the novel when he realizes he's 60 years old. Though we've lived his life through the course of the novel through all his failures, and modest successes, we are hit with the cold reality that there is just not anymore time left. He's made all his choices and, as he keeps repeating "What did you expect?"<br/><br/>Yet this is not a cynical or angry novel. Even in moments of quiet, suffocating despair, of years of a failed marriage, failed relationships, failed career opportunities, this is not a book about a man who is just a sad case for us to pity. William Stoner is like so many very real people, he's a person trying to get by in the world, trying to do some good, but not quite able to bridge the gap between his own internal passions and heat with other people's heart and their warmth. He's closed off, he lives in his own mind, and he always looks for reasons why he can't act, why he shouldn't say or do a thing because he doesn't feel it's right, or his place to do so. He is not a bold man, but rather a man who works hard, does the best he can with what he has, and then, in the end, must accept those choices. <br/><br/>Artistically the novel is a marvel. From the sparse and clear writing, to the near meta-fictional exploration of how literature and books can help us explore the human condition while at the same time needing to withdraw from humanity to experience these books. In the end he holds his own book in his hands and though the contents of that book might not paint a clear picture of the author, it does, as least, offer proof that he existed and contributed even just a little bit to the human species. Or in the dedication of Katherine's book, the initials W.S. are all that is left between the two of them, a fragment, but at least something. <br/><br/>There is continually subtle word play, the use of a line such as "He felt a distant closeness to her", distant closeness in opposition but right next to each other, or him describing his marriage as a stalemate, is he the mate who is stale, is she, are they both? There is the repeated imagery of masks and mask like faces, which in less talented hands would have been a bit heavy handed, but here fits the characters and the tone. Even when the novel pushes the boundaries of imagery, such as with his description of the poignancy of a lone grave enhanced by the vastness of a desert, it never feels out of place or forced. Every word is necessary. <br/><br/>And structurally the novel is near perfect in that this is a first person account written in the third person. We are close to Stoner but never too close, we are always kept at a distance. The narrator is most likely Stoner himself since only twice do we ever get a POV shift, both times with his wife in acts of self discovery, as if their will and imposition spills over into the narration and forces us to have to come to terms with another human being.<br/><br/>This is the true art of the novel, the life we live with Stoner, the slow wearing down upon him, his reasoning for acting, or more often not acting, and the understanding we get of this person who to an outsider would seem a cantankerous and impossible man to know. We learn a little about what it means to be William Stoner, and perhaps, to better see the world through the intentions of the people around us. <br/><br/>The novel is sad but never pessimistic - it's realistic in the best possible use of the word. This is the sort of book a writer like Raymond Carver would immediately relate to and even write about. William Stoner is a sort of mythical American every-man, a man of the earth who is also educated, a man of many faces whose expression never changes, a man never quite sure of his place in the world but is willing to work damn hard to keep what he does have. Stoner was remarkable in that he was completely unremarkable.<br/><br/>We even get in the end the book's, and perhaps our own culture's unspoken philosophy about the meaning of life when he is with the doctor, "it was foolishness, he knew, but he did not protest, it would have been unkind for him to do so."<br/><br/>Stoner is very much a book that will appeal to people who love books and love book learning, however, there is a warning here I believe, and that is the more we learn, the more we try to know, the more we will discover how little we actually known and understand and that there will never be enough time to read and to learn all we need to know because the rabbit hole never ends. Perhaps we would be better off putting the books down and going outside and imposing ourselves on the world. Perhaps Stoner could be read as the great anti-book, or, at least in a meta sense, a slight nod towards American anti-intellectualism; too much knowledge could be bad for you.<br/><br/>At the very least, the book is pretty clear about never being able to ever understand another human being by just reading books about them. Stoner read his whole life away and barely made an impression on any human he ever met aside from his wife, Finch, Lomax, and Katherine Driscoll. Perhaps if he'd found a place to put down his cap and gown from his college graduation he might have lived more. <br/><br/>Yet in the end these are the choices of his life and we are reminded of our own choices, our own mortality and our potential. It would be easy to feel a bit defeated at the end of the novel, to think life is just sort of pointless and full of misery, and in a way it is, but it isn't, too. In the final pages we watch Stoner hearing the teenagers laughing as they walk across his lawn, barely touching the ground, and we long to be with them, not him. We long to live better, but we also understand our limitations.

5 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Raleigh
  • greensboro, NC, United States
  • 07-11-13

understated midwestern beauty

this book was published in 1965
it sold all of 2,000 copies that year
looking back, we probably shouldn't be surprised

it was later rediscovered by european critics
they had the wisdom to recognize its' true worth
it is a real masterpiece of understated beauty

how does an introverted intellectual live life on his terms ?
how can a man fight the world's pressing him into its' mold ?
how can you recover from betrayal and disappointment ?

the book uses a college professor's career to answer these questions
the steady adversity of midwestern life provides the plot
the book is an extraordinary meditation on an ordinary life


5 of 8 people found this review helpful

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Depressing

It must have been very difficult for john Williams to write such a depressing book. Robin Field did an excellent job reading. Would look for him again.

5 of 8 people found this review helpful

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A good reading of a bad book

I got the Audible version of this because I knew that was the only way I was going to be able to finish this poorly-written one-dimensional solipsistic dreck. I had to see it through to the end, just to see if it ever redeemed itself (it didn't).

3 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Luc S.
  • 03-07-17

A book that could have an impact on your life...

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Absolutely, in fact I already bought 3 copies as a gift to some people that I think will like it.<br/>It is the kind of book that everybody should read once in their lifetime.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Every character has it's highlights but some are more memorable than others.<br/>I do not want to spoil anything for the future reader so I will not give any details.

What does Robin Field bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

Mainly the pace. He does an exellent job in following the flow of the book.<br/>Slow when needed and a more up-tempo when the tension rises.<br/>I read this book while i listened to it and his reading was a big plus for me. Sucking me even more into the story, bringing Mr. Stoner to life.

If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

A film that could have an impact on your life...

Any additional comments?

I can't recommend this book enough. After 40+ years of reading it has been a long time since I was so touched by a book and it's characters. <br/>If you want to read about a person's life, with all it's twists and turns, mistakes and temptations, just buy it. Don't read about it. Just start it and follow his journey. I do not think you will be dissapointed.

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  • Wras
  • 09-29-16

Time goes by, we get older, love changes


We are all trapped within our culture and the conditioning of those beliefs, most of us are destined not to be famous or recognized for great achievements, we are just people living our lives with all the ups and downs of these conditions. William Stoner is man like us making decisions that affect him and others, loving and not being loved, moving through time and doing his best to understand to discover all the things we all wonder about.


“Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that...

He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. "Katherine."

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.”
― John Williams, Stoner


He looks for purpose like all of us, and so page by page he becomes a universal man defeated and grandiose with in his life a failure and a success, a life that is more than all the sums of its parts,

This is a beautiful meditative book about the life of a man it is not bombastic and it has no obvious twist but a life as life is and that is what makes it remarkable, its gentle exposure of a man's life.


“He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.”
― John Williams, Stoner

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  • Emma
  • 03-15-16

A revived classic that didn't appeal to me...

I had heard really good things about Stoner. The book is well written and the reading of it fits the text very well. I actually tried reading the book first but didn't like it and went to audible. It was better but this book is just not for me.
The character Stoner is described in detail and it truly is a really well presented portrait, a memoir of this fictional person. A university teacher who loves English literature but who, even when he experiences happiness, has a dull chugging along type of personality. It isn't just that I dislike the person Stoner, I felt it physically demanding to hour after hour listen to how he doesn't take control over his life and happiness, that he settles in a life that really isn't for him. If it wasn't for the second half of his life (and the book), giving him more of a stringer personality I really would have quit.
I as a reader am perfectly happy with not liking the main character and stories where little to nothing "happens", but Stoner took these two concepts too far for my liking.
I know I go against the current trend for this book, but I really can't recommend it. I would not hesitate to listen to other narrations by Robin Field though.

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  • Kevin
  • 01-28-16

Eponymous character passive to an appalling degree

Any additional comments?

I chose to buy this audiobook after reading that the novel was a "rediscovered masterpiece", sadly I don't agree. The character of Stoner became so annoying in his passivity I found it impossible to carry on listening to this book. If he had had an ounce of gumption he and IMHO listeners would have had a much better time!

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  • Craig
  • 12-13-15

Depressing

Well written , well read but a miserable story about a life unfulfilled and full of woe.

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  • Antti
  • 10-19-15

After the Dream

It's been two years since I listened to this. It was the week before an uncharacteristically grey Christmas, John Williams' "Stoner" (1965) the perfect companion.

Full of understated beauty, Williams' work is not, contrary to the first impression, an uneventful meditation but a very tense and thrilling work. While I've had difficulty in adapting to Beckett's sense of stopping, Williams' vision hits home, and hard. His intensely intimate narrative continually fights with the narrative conventions of the hero/antihero, problem and resolution, buildup and climax, exposition. He's at once distant, yet still relentlessly there as Mr Stoner falters through life. Everything seems to return to the beginning, starting over. The sand castle always crumbles into nothingness. There's the dark variety of disappointment, but also a bright, burning sense of injustice that moves forward, feeding from itself. Self-pity, even loathing. Nobody seems to appreciate him, not even he himself. Williams seems to give us no reasons to do so either, but he's not drawing this character conventionally.

Mr Stoner, alone in success and failure, is identifiable because he persists. Williams snatches great moments of catharsis from him, hits the breaks when things start going his way. His great realization is not really even of happiness, but that the universe is not unhinged as it throws him around from an unhappy marriage to doomed love, or from a rising career path to work in the dusty corner for the rest of his life. His contentment, if I may describe it so amid his stout stoicism, is more in the understanding that the universe holds no special grudge against him. He's merely the chaff blown in the wind, here an instant, gone in a flutter.

A hero of the antiheroes? As inappropriate as it may be, journeying with Mr Stoner is like walking alongside the villagers in Béla Tarr's”"Sátántangó" (1994), only devoid of the little pathos they might have had left in the sharp wind. Where this steps away from the path of deceptively self-flagellating masochism is perhaps in how the author makes us feel that we’re there with him, that he’s not alone because of us, and in how the author is able, with Proustian clarity of thought, to give us a glimpse of a truth about ourselves, and others, without succumbing to disdain.

I don't have to find a damp and drizzly November in my soul, to quote a foolhardy sailor, to come this, although it’s not necessarily enjoyment it brings anyway, at least not the usual kind. It's more like seeing yellow birch leaves falling onto the ground, and thinking of the green summer. And sometimes that's the awe-inspiring moment right there, after the dream.

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  • Louisa
  • 03-30-14

Dull and overrated.

Is there anything you would change about this book?

There is no real plot and frankly one never really cares about the central character. A story does not have to be a bodice ripper or a ripping yarn but it does have to have a point and I didn't feel I got much out of the story or the characters.

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  • G
  • 02-24-14

A Work of Art

What did you like best about this story?

it's a beautiful slow melancholy tale of a normal persons life

What does Robin Field bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

he's not a charismatic reader but suits the book well

Any additional comments?

recommended to me by a stranger in a bookshop as the best book she had read thanks for the tip.

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  • Rachel
  • 02-16-14

Disappointing

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

A move eventful story, nothing much happened.

Would you be willing to try another one of Robin Field’s performances?

No, I found the narration tiresome though fitting to the story.

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  • Clare D
  • 01-13-14

Perfect

A perfect book. Just an ordinary life - but beautifully told and beautifully read.