Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is being called a "Great American Novel." I imagined the setting of northern Wisconsin would not be that different from Maine.

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)


TBM said...

Sarah, your photos are so magically dreamy. As always, a beautiful job combining your photos with your words.

I shall add this book and your TV series DVD to my lists of to-read and to-watch.

Stay warm!

Sarah Laurence said...

JaPRA, thanks! I love when my reading matches my environment, although most of the story takes place in summer. I think you, especially, will enjoy both. It’s 2 degrees F and the wind is blowing so hard that the windows are shaking. At least the sun is shining.

A couple of commenters couldn’t find the comment box and posted their comments on Tides and Islands, last week's post. I republished this post, and it seems to be fine now.

A Cuban In London said...
I was going to comment on your new post but there's no box available. It looks like a good read but slow reads for me at the moment are a no-no as I have 'Ulysses' (yes, that 'Ulysses'!) awaiting me. Thanks for the recommendation, though.

Cynthia said...
I couldn't find anywhere to put comments on your today's post...the outdoor photos are fresh as usual...I read "A Thousand Acres" a few years ago and I saw the movie...I feel ashamed to say I never made the King Lear connection. hum... The point you raise about how a certain type of reading fits a certain reminded me of the Native Americans saving storytelling for winter. I can see how the wife and son have no friends (the other novel)-when you live in the country, you have to make an effort to socialize. I love the company of my dogs, too. I think sometimes they like me best of all...irresistible!

Les said...

I read the book this summer and after I finished I would say it was enjoyable. Like you said I found it hard to get started but sticking with it was worth it. My main issue with the book was trying to determine what kind of story it was - coming of age, dog story, murder mystery, setting as character or was it the story of a journey. Not that a novel can't be vague as to its genre, but this seemed to be all over the place.

LINDA from Each Little World said...

Another movie you might enjoy is "In the Bleak Midwinter" (1995). Brit flick where an unemployed actor gathers a troupe to put on Hamlet (at Christmas!) to help save a church/community gathering place. Sweet and funny. Kenneth Branagh directs but it's not so over-the-top since he's not in it. (Now there's a man who needs an editor!)

Sawtelle made the "worst of" lists of some of the book bloggers I follow. Seems to draw strong responses.

Tessa said...

I read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle while on holiday in Madeira and quite enjoyed its slow-burning way to a final conflagration. However, unlike Jane Smiley’s superb ‘A Thousand Acres’, I felt that Wroblewski’s propensity for myth and enigma reduced many of the characters to mere ciphers.

Have you read Leif Enger’s debut novel, Peace Like a River? I thought that his story about a family’s quest for a wayward son across the wild and empty Dakota Badlands is one which is surely crafted in the grand tradition of American coming-of-age literature.

Your photographs, as always, are gloriously evocative. I always feel the thrill of anticipation when I see a new blog post from you on my ‘dashboard’! Thank you for sharing your views,
Sarah…..both in words and in pictures.

tina said...

Hi Sarah, Sounds like an intriguing book. And my does Stella offer a bit of color in your photos. She is so pretty. I will also look out for Slings and Arrows. Thanks for the recommends!

Sarah Laurence said...

Les, that’s a really good point about the book’s identity. I thought it worked best as a dog and boy journey story. The murder mystery seemed super-imposed to add tension, but it didn’t feel as organic. It’s pretty common in a first novel for the author to be less sure of his niche, and as a first attempt, I think it was remarkably good. I’m curious to see what he’ll do next.

Ms. Wis, how nice to see your face on your profile now. That movie sounds fun; thanks for the recommendation. The NYT book review had Edgar Sawtelle listed as one of the best books of the year, and it’s been on the best seller list for weeks. It’s not flawless, but I can’t imagine why it would make a “worst” list. Do you know?

Tessa, really interesting thoughts on both books. I agree that Claude, certainly, was too enigmatic. A Thousand Acres was brilliant if dark. Jane Smiley is one of my favorite authors. It sounds like we share a taste in literature. I’ll have to check out Peace Like a River. Thanks for the recommendation and your praise.

Tina, Stephen King gave it huge praise on the cover. There are similar epic themes and supernatural elements in Wroblewski’s work. I think you’d enjoy the descriptions of the wilderness and farm life too. The one thing it doesn’t have is any romance. Stella loves the snow.

Bee said...

I looked for this book at Border's on Monday . . . but England doesn't seem to have it on the shelves yet.

Your review gives a strong sense of the novel without giving any important plot points away - and that's not an easy thing to do!

The snowscape pictures create such a corresponding mood of beautiful, silent isolation. They "echo" your description of Wroblewski's novel so well. I particularly loved the picture of your son and dog. Were they ice fishing? The dog's rich auburn coat is a splash of warmth in the monochrome landscape.

Bee said...

Will echo Tessa's recommendation to read Enger's Peace Like a River. Enger has a new novel out, too. Like this one, it is being mentioned on many "book of the year" lists.

troutbirder said...

I think this is my king of book . I will be off to B&N tomorrow to get my copy. Thanks for the interesting review.

Sarah Laurence said...

All, sorry, I’m a bit slow on my blog visits this week. My daughter was just diagnosed with Strep. That’s the part of winter I don’t love. I just deleted a comment that was a promotion for a new blog. I welcome new visitors and discussion, not advertisements, so please keep your comments relevant to the post.

Bee, you can always order books directly from Amazon if they aren’t available in the UK. I’m starting to realize that the books that resonate with me often echo my environment either inner or outer. My son was testing the ice by the bank for skating. Stella does anything my son does – she assumes they are littermates. We’ve never gone ice fishing although it is popular here. That’s 2 recommendations for Peace Like A River – I will definitely try it after I get through my stack. Thanks!

Troutbirder, this book has your name written all over it. I thought of you and your retriever while I was reading it. I’m curious to hear what you think of it.

Rose said...

Beautiful photos, Sarah! They do evoke the lonely images of the book you review here. I have a stack of books on my table waiting to be read right now (after I finish Twilight!) so this one may not make my reading list for awhile. But "Slings and Arrows" sounds like a fun show to watch.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, you would love Slings and Arrows. Twilight was one of the fast paced books I read as a break from Edgar Sawtelle. They couldn’t have been more different even though both are set in small towns by the woods with teen protagonists and supernatural elements.

Anil P said...

The cover of the book is magical. The sight of a boy and a dog in the far distance evokes something very fundamental as in the elemental nature of our bonding with the earth so to say.

Your narrative about the book meshes wonderfully well with that of your son and his dog.

I've read the Yorkshire Vet many a time, and should enjoy reading this book as well.

Anonymous said...

Slings! So glad you liked it, Sarah. Strangely, my mother and sister did not. How odd.
Want to read Sawtelle.
Always love the photos - and, I confess, bleakness (is that a word?). It appeals to me, like remoteness, like winter.
Hope your daughter feels better, soon. When Jon was in fourth grade, he had strep several times: awful! Not after that, though.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, I don’t usually start a blog post with a cover, but I loved this one, especially since it captures the feel of the book. I’ll be curious to hear your take on this novel. It seems to evoke strong reactions either way.

Charlotte, I’m surprised your sister didn’t like Slings because she has a great sense of humor. Maybe it was too dark. Even on these bright sunny days, Maine does feel bleak at this time of year. The antibiotics are kicking in so my daughter is feeling better now, thanks. This is the first time she’s had it, and it is miserable. Poor Jon!

Sarah Laurence said...

Here's another comment that I've copied from the post below as it belongs here.

SPOILER ALERT: reaction to the ending.

In response I can only say that Hamlet is a tragedy.

Donna said...

"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is the first book I read this year. I read it in about a week, finishing it this past Sunday. I liked the story, especially since I'm a dog lover, but I hated the ending. I can't understand why this book is a NYT bestseller with a seemingly meaningless, bleak ending like that. Perhaps I need to analyze it better. I didn't realize it was supposed to be a modern-day take on Hamlet. Thank you for your insightful analysis on the book!

Elizabeth said...

These were especially evocative and amazing photos.
So wintry cold.
How well the dog shows up against the white.
Your artist's eye at play.
The book sounds interesting and has been well received . However I'm still ploughing through the pile I was given for Christmas.......
all best

Sarah Laurence said...

Elizabeth, it’s even colder now: below zero (F) this morning and has risen to the daytime high of nine. Even the dog doesn’t want to go out for long. How nice to get a big stack of X-mas books. Our copy of your Jane in Winter just came today. I like the new format.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah, you have painted an irresistable portrait of this book, to match the beauty of the photos. I too will put it on the list of to-read. Thanks.


Robley H said...

I actually like your photographs and commentary (especially this: "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," with which I wholeheartedly agree) more than the book. I read the novel early last summer, quickly, because of the NYTimes review. As I read the second half, I found myself more and more disappointed. Something about it seemed predictable or potboilerish or . . . . I simply lost my belief and faith in the "best book-ness."

Thanks for the photographs of winter's beauty.

Sarah Laurence said...

Frances, thanks! Wroblewski paints beautiful pictures with his words.

Robley, welcome to my blog! I think there is pressure to make novels commercial. I agree that the more quiet and pensive passages resonated the best with me. The language and expression were more effective than the plot. I’m looking forward to visiting your blog.

Here’s another misplaced comment:

Alyson (New England Living) said...
I couldn't find where to comment either. Anyway, I might have to save this book for a few years when I have a moment to spare to read slower paced novels. My 3 year old makes that impossible right now. You are so brilliant at adding your own photos to your book reviews. Such a cool blend!

Alyson, thanks for finding a place to comment anyway. I’ve copied it to the post above. I’m impressed that you get any reading done between a 3 year old, your blog and 3 more kids. My photos with book reviews work for these northern books.

Mary Ellen said...

You are such a good one for adding to my extremely long list of books I want to read (or listen to) and other things I want to do or watch.

I'm grumbling, but I do appreciate it. I had never heard of Slings and Arrows, but it sounds like it's right up my twisted alley!

Sarah Laurence said...

Mary Ellen, my stacks are dangerously tall. Slings is wickedly funny. We are watching the second season now about the curse of staging Macbeth. You do need a twisted sense of humor to enjoy it.

Robley H said...

Sarah, have you read John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius? It's a retelling that's worth the read.

Sarah Laurence said...

Robley, thanks for the recommendation. I’ve only read Updike’s Rabbit, Run and started Terrorist. He writes so well, but those novels were too depressing for me.

Khaled KEM said...

This is a very elegant blog. I am glad to discover it. Thanks for the post I learn from it.


Sarah Laurence said...

Drive-thru, thank you. Your name makes me smile. Welcome to my blog!

Dave King said...

An excellent write-up alongside auch gorgeous pictures has made me very much want to read the book. No reviewer can ask for more than that.