The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was very enjoyable and a real page-turner, but sort of unsatisfactory in the end -- partly because I kept making unfair comparisons to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. That book is also set in the rural Midwest and based on one of Shakespeare's plays (King Lear). Wroblewski's book is based on Hamlet and I don't think it works as well.
Edgar Sawtelle (who is born mute) and his parents raise a special crossbreed of dog on a farm in Wisconsin and do intensive and specialized training with them. The details about the work and about Edgar's relationship with the dogs and one in particular (who stands in for Ophelia) is really compelling. We hear the story of two generations of Sawtelles before the Hamlet plot kicks in. And Edgar's family life is portrayed as sort of an idyll, with the only sour note struck by his uncle, Claude, who stays with the family after being released from prison.
The problem, to me, is that Hamlet feels awkwardly grafted onto the story. There is a rather abrupt change in tone when Edgar's father dies, as though what came before is unrelated. Everything gets dark and sinister -- the family's grief gets magnified and twisted. Things start getting a little too crazy. My dim memories of studying a bit of Shakespeare in school include some stuff about tragedy. Didn't tragedy have to do with a person's essential character? What make events a tragedy is that those involved can behave in no way other than the one their essential natures dictate. Maybe I'm thinking of the Greeks? Anyway, it felt like some of the Hamelt-ian plot and character was forced on this book. The essential natures of the characters seem to change. He could have written a more believable and devastating story by just leaving the Danes out of it.
I may have felt differently about this book, if I'd never read A Thousand Acres, which took King Lear and his three daughters and put them on a farm in Iowa. Smiley transposed the machinations of Lear into the internal politics and secrets of a family farm. Having experienced a family farm, I was blown away by how clearly she got the details. I felt like I knew her characters -- they were SO familiar. And the conflict was not at all stagey. She is scary good. So, you know, Wroblewski was handicapped with me. But he's obviously talented, so I think he should just go it alone.
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