Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Plot Summary: Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home.

Though I don’t usually have the patience for adult books, I’ve been trying to read more of them. So I picked up the one with the most buzz, THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE. I had no plans to review it since it’s adult and not really a crossover, even though the protagonist is a boy. But, after finishing it, there were so many things running around in my head that I had to sit down and sort it out. It turned itself into a review. :)

Throughout most of this book, I was glued to the pages. The characters were rich and interesting, the setting was vivid, and the plot had me on the edge of my seat at times. This is one of the best examples of multiple viewpoints I’ve seen, especially in a story where there’s clearly one main character: Edgar. The title even tells us that it’s his story. The additional perspectives added a rich layer to the plot, which is no easy feat.

The prose is beautiful, disguising the somewhat slow pacing. And the dogs were amazing. I’m not a huge dog person, but I loved reading about the Sawtelle dogs. Also, Edgar is a great main character. I loved following him through the story, watching him grow and learn, and finally become a stronger person because of it.

The ending, however...

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below. Major ones.

This book has a heavy parallel to Hamlet. Some of the names are even similar. And what happens at the end of Hamlet? Everyone dies. Well, pretty much the same thing happens at the end of EDGAR SAWTELLE. But was it the right ending for Edgar’s story?

If Wroblewski set out to write a complete retelling of Hamlet, then he succeeded. But at what cost? I think he sacrificed his story in order to stay true to someone else’s, and that just killed the whole experience for me.

Wroblewski led us through Edgar’s story, made us care about him, gave him growth and understanding so that he knows how to do the right thing, even when there’s high risk. And it was all natural and realistic. That’s amazing! He created a hugely inspiring character in Edgar. Who wouldn’t want to find that kind of strength within themselves?

But then, almost as soon as Edgar figures it all out, he is killed by Claude, the person who killed Edgar’s father. Edgar even suspects Claude is up to no good, yet he turns his back to him? I realize he’s still a kid, but this kid has just grown leaps and bounds. I can’t believe that he’d say “I know what Claude is up to” one minute, then turn his back to him the next minute. It cheapens all of Edgar’s growth, and makes his death seem contrived and senseless.

Another thing that bothered me was the manner of Claude’s death. If the ghost of Gar could kill Claude, why did he wait so long to do it? Granted, the barn was on fire so it was easier, but surely a determined ghost could have taken other opportunities. So why didn’t he? Again, seems contrived and a bit too convenient.

Trudy’s situation, however, had me reeling in shock. She’s the only one who survives with no physical injuries, and yet she’s the most injured of all. Her husband is gone, her son is gone, even her future with the dogs is taken away. She is punished so far beyond anyone else that I’m stunned. Being a wife and mother myself, there is no way I’d be able to survive losing my husband and sons. Especially if I had to watch my sons being taken away from me, knowing there was nothing I could do about it. There would be nothing left of me except a hollow shell – that is, if I hadn’t killed myself in the process of trying to save my sons. Trudy did nothing to deserve such a fate! Why should she suffer more than Claude, who had taken her entire world away from her?

The last thing that bothered me was the dogs. In the end, Essay takes the dogs who will follow, meets up with Forte, and they go off together. But go off where? To Henry? To grow wild and forget that amazing connection they’ve made with humans? It doesn’t make sense. The connection with humans is what makes them Sawtelle dogs. Take that away and they’re ordinary. If Essay’s choice was to show that she can make choices on her own, then it turns the whole story around so it’s not about Edgar. It’s about her and the other dogs. But the book is called THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, not THE STORY OF THE SAWTELLE DOGS, so that didn’t make sense either.

I guess what really bothered me the most was that the author stuck so closely to Hamlet. I have no problem with re-tellings. I love them, actually. But a writer still needs to stay true to his own story, not someone else’s. When re-telling someone else’s story, the writer has already taken something that belonged to someone else and made it his own. So, if his story doesn’t fit with the original, why stick with it? To stay true to someone else’s story is easier. But easy isn’t always right, just as Edgar figured out. The writer needs to find his own path, which is much harder, scarier, and frustrating. But, in the end, it’s worth it. For everyone.


Mary Witzl said...

Someone at work was reading this, but after reading this, I think I'll have to give it a miss. I can read just about anything, but stories where ALL the good people die are just too much for me. Even in life, thank God, that rarely happens; no reason I should turn to literature to find it. Which makes me realize that one of the reasons I read is to be entertained and uplifted...

Tabitha said...

Some of the mom's at my oldest son's school read this, and they loved it. That's what made me pick it up. I loved it until the end, which just ruined everything for me. And made me mad, because this book is like 550 pages!

If you want to be uplifted, this book is definitely not for you. :)

Bish Denham said...

When Oprah said you'd bawl at the end I hesitated to read it because I thought she meant it had a very tragic ending, which like Mary, I'm not fond of. I need a little hope, a little light. I guess I was right to hesitate.

Thanks for the review.

Tabitha said...

Oprah said you'd bawl at the end? Oh, I missed that comment. I didn't bawl, I was confused. Then annoyed. :)

Danyelle L. said...

I like what you said about sacrificing the story to stay true to someone else's. This is so true. There are only a few books I've come across that made me feel this way--even if the someone else's was the author's story, forcing the characters--and it's hard. Especially when the book shows so much potential.

PJ Hoover said...

The best retellings do seem to be the ones that allow themselves to diverge from the inspiring story. I've always toyed around with the idea of a retelling, but need to figure out how I can make it do just this.
Nice review! I haven't read it (and it's not on my list anytime soon).

Unknown said...

Ooo. I've not read this one, but it does sound brilliant! I personally like books about disabilities--my best friend is blind, and it always intrigues me to read books that show different sides of that world I'm close to but don't know.

C.R. Evers said...

Sounds very interesting. I may have to put this on my TBR list.

Tabitha said...

Windsong - *very* true, especially about the author forcing his characters into a story that doesn't fit them. We have to learn how to be true to our characters, and make sure they tell their story, not ours. :)

PJ - I totally agree. Some of the best retellings I've read have been Ella Enchanted, Beauty, and Curse Dark As Gold. It's a hard balance to find, but it's fantastic when the author gets it right. :)

Beth - the beginning has some really interesting situations with Edgar's disability, then there's not so much until the middle. Then, you hardly notice it. He's good at communicating when he needs to. And I loved the communication he formed with the dogs.

Christy - it is an interesting book, and plenty of people have loved how it ended. So if you read it, I hope you enjoy it! :)

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this book, so I have no opinion on it.

I just wanted to comment on what you and PJ Hoover have said about retellings ... that they don't necessarily have to be faithful to the original plot. That sometimes it's better when they aren't. It's a very interesting point and one I hadn't thought of before. Thanks for the new ideas!

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

sounds confusing - Im exhausted!

Tabitha said...

Jenn - yes, retellings are often better when they don't adhere strictly to the original story. Especially of the reader already knows the original...then there's no surprises! :) Glad you enjoyed this discussion. That's what this blog is all about. :)

Shelli - yeah, writing and exhaustion seem to go hand in hand. Or maybe it's just me. :)

Anonymous said...

The end definitely wasn't sad. I don't think it should have made anybody bawl. I agree that it seemed very contrived and everything ended wayyy too fast. Also, Edgar should have killed Claude-- THAT would have been far more satisfying, and if sticking to Hamlet is what the author hoped to achieve, would have made more sense. But I guess we couldn't turn our precious hero into a murderer, now could we? Also, and I may be the only one who thinks this way, but I was kind of looking forward to Trudy's death. Her selfishness aggravated me to no end. But of course, she's the only one left alive. It sort of figures.
In any case, and for any number of reasons, the end completely ruined an otherwise amazing novel.

Unknown said...

How exactly dose Trudy die ?