Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Let me preface this critique by saying this: I am not a literary critic. I did not take any literature classes in college (except for Spanish Lit which does not count because my Spanish wasn't good enough to understand any of the books I read). I do, however, love to read. Is that enough to lend me a little credibility? I'm guessing not.

I decided to read Edgar Sawtelle after hearing Oprah say that it's a "must read" for dog lovers. I try not to do everything Oprah says because then I feel like a lemming. And I think some of her book choices are annoying. But her description of this book intrigued me. So I went to our local library's online catalog to reserve it and found that I was 53rd in line to get the book. Yeah, I wanted to read it before next Christmas. In fact, I was hoping to read it before this Christmas. Instead of waiting a year, I picked the book up in the UCCS library last week while I was between classes. Ahhh, the perks of being an instructor. For me, finals week means passing out a scantron exam and then sitting back and watching my students scratch their heads. Not a lot of work for me, which leaves plenty of time for reading.

Enough discussion about how I got the's what I liked about it: Edgar. The character of Edgar is complex and mysterious. From the time he is born (without use of his voice but with perfect hearing), the reader gets an inside look at how bright he is. His parents run a boutique kennel where they've developed a new breed of dogs, the Sawtelle dogs, and Edgar has an indescribable connection with them. Getting a glimpse of that connection is my favorite part of this book. Edgar is smart, introspective, funny, sweet, passionate, intuitive, kind, and protective. Sounds like a perfect husband, actually.

I also loved the mystery of the book, which kept me turning the pages, and the detailed descriptions that caused me to feel like I was inside the story. The author's descriptiveness is at the same time precise and open to the reader's interpretation.

Here's what I didn't like about the book: the characters' ideologies seem out of place. Edgar's mom (Trudy) and his friend (Henry) are, at least, highly relativist or, at most, atheist. That ideology seems out of place in rural northern Wisconsin. Maybe in Madison, but not in rural Wisconsin. Maybe I'm wrong, but I imagine people in that part of the country having more traditional ideologies. Everything else about the characters in the book seems traditional, so the postmodernism seems unrealistic. The ideological stuff didn't even seem pertinent to the story -- it did nothing to add to my understanding of the characters nor did it make them more interesting. And, for me, it detracted significantly from the story, overshadowing my respect for the characters in some circumstances. For instance, I started out admiring Trudy's character. She was measured, wise, and reliable. I was jealous of Edgar for the advice she would give him. Then she got all relativist on me and really lost her appeal.

My gut reaction is to attribute the annoying gush of relativism to the fact that The Story is David Wroblewski's first novel and, if I understand correctly, one that he's put a good chunk of his life into creating. Is it just me or, when authors finally finish their first novel (or even a children's book), do they sometimes over-do it? Put too much into the book? That's the impression I sometimes get of debuts.

Ideological issues, aside, another annoyance was the word "oily." He used it maybe five or six times throughout the book and it gave me the heeby-jeebies every time. The word is...well, gross. It reminded me of a thirteen year old boy's face or a girl's greasy unwashed hair. Ick. One use of the word would be sufficient, but it's the kind of word that, when used multiple times in the same story, stands out and made me think, "Eeyoow. Why is he using that word again?" Maybe he had a specific purpose for using the word and I'm just not a good enough reader to get it. That is highly possible.

My only other issue with the book was its ending. I need closure, people! Don't leave me with a burning barn and two main characters inside and not tell me what happened to them! Ooh...hope that doesn't ruin the story for you. Oh, wait...since there's really no ending there's nothing to ruin! I just don't want to have to use my imagination with a character to whom I've grown so attached. I want to know if he lives. I want to know if he can speak. I want to know if his adversary is dead. I want to know if his dogs are coming back and I want to know what Trudy is going to do now. I even want to know what the new barn will look like. I want to know!

So maybe my three negative comments will deter you from picking up The Story, but they shouldn't. The scrumptious language in this novel is enough reward for reading it, even if you don't know what happens in the end. Wroblewski's handle on the English language is beyond anything I've read in a long time. Like, up there with Steinbeck. Read this novel and soak yourself in the beauty of the language.

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