The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski
I’m having a hard time explaining how I feel about this one. It’s been a long time since a book so completely enraptured me and then utterly broke my heart. For starters, it is so beautifully written and it’s a tribute to the writer’s skill (I still can’t believe this is the author’s first novel), that I became so attached to the characters, especially the dogs. I’ve always been an animal lover and I have a really hard time with anything bad happening to animals in books, (Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling.) I’m particularly sensitive to cruelty to dogs and horses for some reason and so there were a few parts that were hard for me to read. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a book about cruelty towards animals, but the dogs are main characters in the book and there are some tough scenes. I’ve never read a book that expressed the psychology of a dog in such a vivid way.
Edgar is born mute to devoted parents who own a unique dog breeding and training company in Wisconsin. From the earliest chapters, where we meet Edgar’s parents Trudy and Gar, the story hooked me completely. It’s a slow moving novel, one that you sink into and hardly notice when 100 pages have past. The story is a loose retelling of Hamlet. The local vet, Doctor Papineau is Polonius, his son is the county sheriff and fills the role of Laertes. Edgar’s loyal dog, Almondine, is a twist on Ophelia. Now keep in mind that it’s not an exact retelling and so not all of the characters share the fates of their Hamlet counterparts, but knowing the general story in advance certainly cloaks the entire novel in a layer of portentousness.
The moments where the story was the most closely aligned with Shakespeare’s original tale were actually the sections that I thought didn’t work as well as the rest of the book. Maybe because it took the mystery out of it or maybe because it’s such a strong story in its own right, that adding a supernatural element and relying heavily on the revenge tale took away from the powerful characters Wroblewski created in the Sawtelle family.

It’s strange, the book could absolutely have 200 pages cut from its bulk to move the story along at a faster clip, but at the same time, the quiet moments where very little happened were some of my favorites. When Edgar is with his dogs, training or spending time with them, that’s when I felt the most connected to him as a character. When the plot was rolling forward with its tone of impending doom, headed inevitably towards the Hamlet conclusion, those were my least favorite parts. They felt a bit more forced, like they were violating the actions we had grown to expect from certain characters.
BOTTOM LINE: I couldn’t put it down, even when I was worried about a character or heartbroken over a scene, I still didn’t want to let it go. I almost felt tense while reading certain sections, but then I would relax into the comfortable comradery Edgar had with the dogs. It’s one of the most unique reading experiences I’ve had in a long time and I know I’ll be thinking about Edgar, Almondine, Tinder, Essay and Baboo for a long time. The only reason it didn’t get 5 stars is because I can’t imagine putting myself through reading it again.
“From the look on his face I could see he was one of the lucky ones; one of those people who liked doing what they’re good at. That’s rare.”
Crash Course just did a post on Hamlet. If you aren’t already subscribed to their literature posts, you should be!


Bybee said...

I've been curious about this one.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I REALLY loved this one, but so many people didn't. It just hit a nerve with me, although yes it devastated me. Annoyed me because it was an Oprah book, and I love to be contrary with them. It was a very long book, but I don't think I'd have had it any other way.

Suey said...

This book grabbed me so so hard! I loved it! It's been on my all time favorites list ever since. I'm so glad you liked it too. :)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I loved this one even though the reviews were mixer.

Anonymous said...

This one didn't do much for me but I loved Almondine the dog!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Susan - It's a very unique novel!

Sandy - Exactly, it hit a nerve. I tend to subconciously judge Oprah books too :)

Suey - I think this is one that will stay with me forever!

Diane - Me too, I can see why it wouldn't work for a lot of people though.

bkclubcare - You're definitely not alone. It seems to be one of those divisive novels.

Brona said...

My mum banned me from watching Lassie and Kimba the White Lion when I was little cause I got too upset in them.
I still have the same problem with many animal books (as long as they don't start talking!)
I'll, therefore, take this book under advisement :-)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Brona Joy - Fox and the Hound and Homeward Bound are a couple other intense animal ones. I'll have to check out Kimba the White Lion.