Feature

Book of the week: Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author recounts her struggle to build her dream home on 640 windswept Wyoming acres.

(Scribner, 256 pages, $26)

“There are two ways to describe Annie Proulx’s memoir, Bird Cloud,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. To some readers, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s account of her struggle to build her dream home on 640 windswept Wyoming acres may come off as “a mildly animated and knotty book about a late-life longing to carve out a place that’s truly one’s own.” Inescapably, however, Bird Cloud also provides an “especially off-putting” self-portrait of “a wealthy and imperious writer who believes people will sympathize with her about the bummers involved with getting her Brazilian floor tiles installed just so.” Radically unlike the stoic characters of her fiction—people who rise to the hardships of American rural life—Proulx reveals herself here to be a whiny, Riesling-swilling lover of extravagance. “Few writers can talk about the perks of their success without sounding defensive or deplorable.” Proulx certainly isn’t one of those few.

But the building of the house is “only a piece” of Proulx’s story, said Tim Gautreaux in the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is a book about place, and no American author tops Proulx at setting down the reader in unfamiliar territory.” Woven into her tale are side trips into the history of Wyoming beginning with the Cenozoic era, long lists of native flora and fauna, and an exploration of the property’s Native American and colonial past. As for the house itself, it’s true that the author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain” is “picky as hell about everything.” That’s only because in the ideal, she envisions the Bird Cloud house as an extension of the landscape, blending seamlessly “into the world of the region’s wildlife.” Proulx loves Wyoming as a place like no other.

Maybe so, but Proulx’s excesses still come as a bit of a shock, said Michael Upchurch in The Seattle Times. The attention she devotes to her own comforts is “the last thing you’d expect” from an author renowned for “three volumes of hard-edged Wyoming stories.” As she recounts laying out small fortunes for Japanese soaking tubs and imported seeds for her garden, readers will be left wondering if she possesses “a single ounce of common sense.” When she finally discovers that Wyoming’s monumental snowfalls make her $4 million home inaccessible for half the year, you almost feel as if justice had the final word.

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