Wroblewski’s first novel is astonishingly well crafted but not a quick read. The language is lovely and full of evocative images that pull you into the slow paced narrative. This is a book that I started in the fall only to put aside for the long winter nights. It’s the perfect read by the fire. Don’t expect a page turner until the final chapters.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a modern Hamlet. The novel it most closely resembles is Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which reinterpreted King Lear on a farm in Iowa. I enjoy modern takes on Shakespeare, but the downsides are that the suspense is ruined and the book can only fall short of the master.
What is Hamlet without his soliloquies? Perhaps Wroblewski’s decision to make his protagonist mute sprang from this concern. Edgar communicates through sign language which is cleverly portrayed as dialogue without quotation marks. Edgar is a well developed character who is restricted at crucial times by his disability but not overcome by it normally. He is in no way pathetic, but rather an active, strong character.
In a clear nod to Hamlet, Edgar’s mother is Trudy (ie Gertrude from Hamlet) and his diabolical uncle is Claude (ie Claudius.) Wroblewski’s Claude is too evil, almost a cartoon character, and impossible to understand.
My dog with my fourteen-year-old son
Hamlet had Ophelia and friends, but Edgar has only dogs for companionship. His family breeds most unusual dogs that can communicate like no others. Thankfully the dogs don’t talk, and they still act like real dogs or perhaps wolves. Where Wroblewski is at his best is describing rural life and the bond between dog and man. He’s a bit of a modern James Herriot:
She [Trudy] believed in training – that there was nothing in a dog’s character that couldn’t be adapted to useful work. Not changed, but accommodated and, ultimately, transformed. That was what people didn’t understand. Unless they had worked long and hard at it, most people thought training meant forcing their will on a dog. Or that training required some magical gift. Both ideas were wrong. Real training meant watching, listening, diverting a dog’s exuberance, not suppressing it. You couldn’t change a river into a sea, but you could trace a new channel for it to follow.
Edgar Sawtelle is a dog lover’s book but requires a mature reader. Despite having a fourteen-year-old boy as a protagonist, this novel is not young adult fiction. Teenagers live in a world of their peers and passions, but Edgar lives only for his parents and their dogs. We learn that his schoolmates like him and can understand him well enough, so why doesn’t he have any friends at all? Why doesn’t his mother have any girlfriends either?
The isolation of the Sawtelle family makes the story more of a parable. The quality of the writing makes it read like a classic. It should be savored over many nights. You will feel sad when you reach the ending, realizing you have to bid goodbye to Edgar and his wonderful dogs.
You will want to follow them into the woods.
If you crave more Shakespeare, rent the television series Slings and Arrows. It’s a dark comedy about a struggling theater company in Canada. The acting is fabulous and the wry humor brings to mind the best English comedies. In the first season a Hollywood blockbuster star is called in to play Hamlet. It’s laugh out loud funny. Thanks, Charlotte, for the recommendation.
Preview for Slings and Arrows (adult content)