Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - David Wroblewski I've been delaying writing a review on this one, which I finished a week ago, because I'm quite conflicted about it. It was a recognizably flawed book, but I loved reading it. The characters' motivations were not just obscure, they were inexplicable and mostly just absent. Despite that, I loved the characters--especially Edgar, with whom I was so invested, so quickly, that I often had to put the book down after a segment just to catch my breath and brace myself for what might be next. The story itself seemed to set off promising some definitive journey-to-an-end, and never got there unless you think that Wroblewski really did pull off a Shakespearean tragedy--which I definitely don't. (Shakespeare was a master at tying up all his plot points neatly, answering all the unanswered questions and making each of his characters' motivations crystal clear by the last line of the last act, wasn't he?)

Ok ... so why did this book that so clearly didn't live up to what it could have been--a grand, allegorical Shakespearean coming-of-age story with a tragic ending--still capture my attention and hold my interest so completely instead of disappointing me thoroughly? It broke all kinds of rules, and not deliberately and provocatively by putting others in their place, as I kind of thought it would when it took its first turn into magic realism, but through what I can only see as B-grade writing. E.g., the ghost in the rain, and later in the toolshed? That was Wroblewski's delusions of Shakespearean grandeur that got him into that trouble, but he didn't create a phantasmagorical story around it, with characters and events that transcended the real-life laws of physics, or with human motivations and plots that were epic in proportion. Edgar's trial-by-fire journey into the wilderness was more like a really bad camping trip. The Sawtelle dogs weren't bound to their masters in some kind of canine-human bond that was the next step on the evolutionary ladder, they were just exceptionally friendly and clever.

Yet, this damn thing is like the bumblebee that defies the laws of physics to fly--I still think it was a sweeping saga, a masterful story that illustrates some pretty timeless themes of emotional connection, family, and human-animal bonds.

And I'm trying to be ruthless with myself here, because I confess to an annoying predilection to get sucked into sentimentality and overlook structural flaws, especially when there are dogs involved. I myself own a Wheaten terrier, Molly, of whom one woman I meet up with in the dog park remarked: "that dog is so devoted to you, if you died, she will lie down on your grave and wait for death to take her."

I loved the Sawtelle dogs, I truly did. But this is just it: Wroblewski set me up for what I thought would be an original, compelling idea (with the dogs, and in other places too) and then ... didn't quite take me there.

He just didn't push any of the plots far enough, he didn't make any of the characters tragic enough, or any of the events emotionally wrenching enough. This made it easier to read than it should have been--although I was prepared for tragedy, my fear of what might happen was worse than what eventually did. It makes for great suspense, but a less-than-satisfying experience in some ways.

Ironically enough, had he made the highs higher and the lows lower, I wouldn't have been able to read it but I would have thought it was a better novel. It would have been too emotionally wrenching for me, because as it was I was bonded to Edgar and Almondine; I related to their deep and complex emotional inner lives, and mute inability--literally--to express themselves. I felt Edgar's angst--his isolation, his adolescent pain, his yearning to find his way in the world and through the tragic events that befell him. I felt Almondine--and later other dogs'--deep connection to each other and to their humans; Wroblewski did quite a good job capturing that unique attachment between dogs and people and expressing it from the animal's point of view (not as good as Gowdy in The White Bone, but still a commendable effort).


But Wroblewski didn't take Edgar or the dogs close enough to death to make their harrowing journey (either its cause or its consequences) so powerful that it was both transformative and tragic. In fact, he gave them an 'out' in Henry and his generosity that dampened the pain (psychological and, in Timber's case, physical) and dulled the conclusion. He didn't show us Almondine's death in gruesome, gut-wrenching enough detail to make the reader feel as though she had been ripped from this life and our hearts, or from Edgar's--so her 'reappearance' was anti-climactic and kind of comforting, when it should have been otherworldly and triumphal. He didn't clearly explain Claude's background to show us the depths of his depravity and cruelty--he implied a bunch of nasty details related to dog-fighting, but not enough to let us in on the fact that this man was an evil-doer. Instead, he seemed to be a ne'er-do-well black-sheep relative, ambiguously and somewhat ineptly criminal but not the instrument of death and destruction that in fact he was.

You see what I mean?

And yet ... and yet. I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed it despite of or perhaps because of the fact that it didn't rip my heart out, and serve it up to me on a platter, reading late into the night with tears streaming down my face. That is what it probably should have done, but I forgive it and thank it for being gentle. I wonder if a second reading would do that for me--I would be less focused on what I thought was going to happen, and more able to experience what was happening in the moment. Hmmm.

Overall, I think that while Wroblewski over-reached with the Shakespearean allusion(s), what he did do was solid and satisfying, quite original and engrossing, despite its flaws. My always-by-my-side Wheaten terrier Molly and I give it 4.253.25 [ETA: 7/8/10 what was I thinking?] stars. :-)