The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a moving, beautifully written, emotionally taxing, very well-told novel.  It’s the kind of book that’s difficult, not because of the way it’s written, but because of the direction you know the story is headed in — you get caught up in the novel’s world and want to stay in it, and yet you know things are going to go bad at some point and you dread the thought.

The novel is a retelling of Hamlet, a fact that shapes your experience of it one way or another.  If you are familiar with the play, then you have the pleasure of trying to figure out which character in the novel corresponds to which character in the play, and which plot event is a version of the play’s events.  The novel doesn’t follow Hamlet exactly, but it’s close enough that there are plenty of convergences to pick up on. You also have a general sense of the direction the plot will take and it’s satisfying to watch exactly how Wroblewski works everything out.

The risk of retelling a well-known story is that the reader might lose a sense of urgency or feel that what happens is too expected and familiar, and I did feel a laxness now and then when the novel followed the play particularly closely.  But the method offers plenty of other pleasures (although perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the right word, since we’re talking about a tragedy here), not least the experience of hoping against hope that things will turn out differently than you are afraid they will.

If the reader isn’t familiar with Hamlet, there is another possible risk, which is that some of the plot events may seem a little strange and out of place.  I read this book for a book group (which hasn’t yet met) and another member who hadn’t realized that it’s a version of Hamlet was a little startled to find that a ghost makes an appearance in a novel that is otherwise very down-to-earth and realistic.  But this friend said it was only a small jarring moment in what was otherwise a good experience.

If you do get the Hamlet reference, there is the intellectual pleasure of seeing just how Wroblewski reshapes a story originally set in a very different time and place.  He does this wonderfully well; with the possible exception of ghosts, there is no awkwardness in having a Hamlet who lives on a farm in Wisconsin in the 20th century and grows up raising dogs.  Wroblewski handles the relationships among the Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude characters marvelously well, and his take on Ophelia is astonishing.

But to set the Hamlet issue aside, the world of the novel is remarkably well-realized and his main character an appealing one.  Edgar’s life is simple — he attends school but spends most of his time working with the dogs his family is known for, the Sawtelle dogs, distinguished by their unusually strong ability to communicate with humans.  He and his mother and father raise and train the dogs, pouring their energy into them so that they are among the best-trained dogs available.

Edgar’s life is also shaped by the fact that he was born unable to speak, although he can hear normally.  This is a mystery to the doctors, who conducted test and after test on him but could never figure out the problem.  Something about this inability to speak gives him an unusually close rapport with the dogs, so close that his ability to train them sometimes suffers.  His companion, Almondine, is always by his side; she is trained to keep an eye on him and to alert the others if he is in trouble.  Her devotion to him — and his to her — is almost too moving to bear.

The novel’s point of view is most often focused on Edgar, with some chapters that shift to other characters and now and then even to Almondine, and Wroblewski often tells us what Edgar is thinking and feeling, but he rarely tells us what Edgar thinks of his inability to speak.  This fact is simply a given, something Edgar seems to accept.  (The one exception to this general rule is horrifying, however — all the more horrifying because of this earlier reticence.)  We also don’t learn much about Edgar’s life off the farm.  We know he attends school, but what his experience is like there we have no idea, and we never hear of any friends or outside interests or future plans.  For such a long novel, it’s remarkably focused on just a few people in a constrained setting.  This narrowness of focus intensifies the sense of doom that slowly settles over everybody; if things are going to go wrong, they are going to go spectacularly wrong and it will be a horrifying sight.  The farm is all that Edgar knows — it’s his whole world, and this gives him a strength and a vulnerability that are wrenching to behold.

This is Wroblewski’s first novel, and I’m very curious to see what he will publish next; this is a wonderful debut from a writer I hope gives us many more books in the future.

(If you decide to read the hard cover version of this book, I’d suggest not reading the front flap, as it gives away way too much of the plot.  After all I’ve said about Hamlet, you might think I’ve given away too much too, but the description on the front flap gives many more details than I have here, and I wish I hadn’t known them when I was reading.)

11 Comments

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11 responses to “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

  1. I’ve not read very much Shakespeare and I know retellings of his work abound. I never can decide whether I should read the play first or whether maybe it doesn’t really matter. I suppose there are benefits to each. This sounds good and I will add it to my list. And thanks for the heads up on the book jacket blurb–I hate knowing too much about a book before reading it, and I hate it when the plot is given away like that!

  2. It’s not often I feel a bit shame-faced admitting to a gap in my reading, but I have never read or seen Hamlet. I guess I ought to do something about that! This sounds an interesting book – do you think the author manages to do something with the frame he’s manipulating, Dorothy? Does he reawaken the relevance of Hamlet for the modern age, or add a new dimension of meaning to Shakespeare’s construct? I’m always interested in the reasons why modern texts echo old ones (like Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres and King Lear).

  3. One of the librarians I work with praised this book and said it is one of her top picks of the year. Your review cinched it for me — I have to get it. By the way, thanks for the tip about the front flap spoiler.

  4. It’s always thrilling to find a new novelist whose first work gives you a thrill of excitement when you think of what might be to come. This sounds intriguing and like Litlove my first thought was of ‘A Thousand Acres’. Has this been published in the UK, do you know?

  5. I’ve heard some buzz about this book but haven’t been paying attention to it and didn’t even know what the book was about. You got my attention! I think I’m going to have to get myself a copy.

  6. verbivore

    I’ve been so curious about this book since I saw it came out, because I loved the premise of this mute boy telling a story. Interestly, the review that got me interested didn’t even give a small hint of the Hamlet parallel so I had no idea. Now I am definitely getting a copy and the sooner the better. And I think I will recommend it for my book group.

  7. Pingback: Oprah’s Book Club Book Announced at Sassymonkey Reads

  8. Hamlet was always my favorite Shakespeare play, but this telling of it sounds so incredibly sad, I don’t know if I could read it! I guess I am a book wimp with some titles.

  9. Well, Dorothy, you are very prescient! Good review — I too had heard a bit about this book here and there, but you’ve convinced me I should read it. Especially with the Hamlet element; I simply love Hamlet so now I must, MUST read this too. Thanks for the extra nudge to move it up the TBR!

  10. You solved a mystery for me! A customer called the store late last night asking me to order this book because of Oprah. It sounded SO familiar to me that I was thinking I’d seen it here in the store already. I looked and looked and no, it wasn’t here. Then I looked it up and saw that it was in hardcover and knew that we had not brought it into the store – so HOW had I heard of this book? It was really bothering me, this lapse, and then I clicked through Bloglines to this post and realized that it was you who had been writing about this book for some time. I just hadn’t reconciled my online life to my real one. :)

    But I’m really disappointed that Oprah has chosen a hardcover book. Amazon is offering it at a paperback price but that doesn’t help the small independents.

    Anyway – it sounds good. Thanks for the reviews.

  11. Danielle — I’m not sure if you’d be better off reading Hamlet first before the novel; I suppose either way would work, but I do think the novel stands on its own and you don’t really need to know the play. And yeah — why give away the plot??

    Litlove — your question is a good one; one of the most interesting things is the way Hamlet, who is famous for his speeches and his talkativeness, can’t speak in the novel. I think this says something about genre, actually — a novel can give you a character’s interior life in a way a play can’t. There’s something powerful about a suffering character who can’t speak and is forced to relate to language in a different way from everybody else.

    Lisa — apparently Oprah agrees too! I hope you like it …

    Stefanie — I hope you like it if you do read it; it’s worth it, I think. And get a copy soon before they all have Oprah’s book club on it!

    Ann — it’s available in the UK, so you can check it out if you want … I should read Smiley’s novel; I’ve been aware of it for a long time, but haven’t gotten to it yet. These two might make an interesting comparison.

    Verbivore — I wonder if the reviewer was trying not to give any secrets away — knowing it’s the Hamlet story does change your experience of it, and it might be fun to figure it out on your own. Now I’ve ruined that for you — hope you don’t mind! :)

    Debby — I don’t blame you for being a wimp about some books, and this one is particularly hard to take because it’s about dogs — sad books about animals are particularly hard, aren’t they?

    Melanie — well, if you love Hamlet, then this is certainly the book for you; it makes me want to reread the play, in fact. I hope you enjoy it!

    Diana — glad to help! I hadn’t thought about how Oprah choosing a hardcover book would affect independent stores — I wonder if she has any clue about such things.

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