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Monday, October 27, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

***½ The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. General fiction.

Whew. I finally finished this. If you read my weekend update, you'll know that this was the first book for our neighborhood book club, and I hadn't finished it by the time we met on Wednesday. I needed a break from it, so I read No Escape when it arrived in the mail on Friday, then went back to this.

Edgar Sawtelle is a mute 14-year-old boy (for the bulk of the story, anyway--it begins before his birth). He lives with his parents on a farm where they breed and train Sawtelle dogs. The dogs are chosen for temperament rather than appearance or other physical traits, following Edgar's father and grandfather's theories of creating the next evolution of dogs.

The story picks up when Edgar's uncle Claude arrives, and his father gives him a job on the farm and a place to live. There's tension between them, and eventually, Edgar's father dies mysteriously. One thing leads to another, and then Edgar is on the run with three dogs.

Much of the book is descriptions of dog training and Edgar's efforts to communicate. Once Edgar's father dies, that expands to include a suspense element. It's very atmospheric, and for a while, I'd really sink into the writing, which has an ominous, dream-like feel to it. I'd have to put it down periodically, though, because it got to be too much--kind of like eating marzipan, it's rich but you can't make a meal of it.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle did make a good book club book, because there was a lot there to discuss--a lot of imagery, foreshadowing, and metaphor. And there were the parallels to Hamlet, which felt forced at the end, but were still good discussion fodder. It will probably thrill English Lit professors for years.

For recreational reading, though, I wouldn't have chosen it, and not just because it has a sad ending (oh, come on--that's not a spoiler: the professional reviews all cite Hamlet, and if that's not enough, it's an Oprah book. Oprah doesn't pick books with happy endings.).

One thing we did discuss at the book club that really pinpointed my so-so reaction was that none of us ever cried or even got a lump in our throats while reading even the saddest scenes. That, I think, was the result of the remote, dreamlike writing style. The reader is removed from the characters, so even though you can think "oh, that's sad," you don't really feel it. Obviously, it's not just me--none of the 10 other women in the book club felt it either, and we all have vastly different reading styles.

And then there were the threads that were either dropped or contradicted, mostly, it seemed, in order to squeeze in those Hamlet parallels. There were a lot of details that got carried through the book and made sense later on, but there were just as many that just fell flat. Chief among them, I thought, was the attempt to breed dogs you could train to make choices. For the amount of time spent on it during the book, it should have played a much more important part in the ending.

Speaking of the ending--the fourth-to-last chapter should have been the end of the book. It really should have. It made an excellent ending. Instead, the book dragged on for three more chapters, trying to wring as much bleakness out of the subject as possible, I suppose. Or a writing style choice, thinking that we had to know what happened after the end. It's okay to leave a few things unsaid. And as a matter of fact, except for one major development which could have fit easily into that fourth-to-last chapter, nothing was really solved in those last chapters. They were just reminding the readers that we'll have to figure out for ourselves what happens to certain characters. We could have figured that out without the reminders.

As for specific details--Claude had obviously been in prison (it's alluded to when he first arrives), yet sheriff Glen trusts him implicitly, without question? Granted, Claude can be very charming when he wants to be, but that didn't make a lot of sense to me. And what was the point of Henry? We didn't need to know his entire life story, but I was left with the feeling that I wanted either more or less of him in the book. The little girl who had a curious insight about Edgar's muteness--I'd have expected to see a little more of her, or for her insight to have some import. And Ida Paine, the old lady with "the sight"--she was definitely not utilized as much as she could have been.

I suppose I'm glad I read it. It does have some beautiful language, and the dreamlike quality of the writing was nice to sink into occasionally. I wouldn't read it again, nor would I seek out anything else by this author--though since it took him ten years to write this book, I suspect that's not going to be an issue.

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