The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar SawtelleHave you read this rather long novel by David Wroblewski? What did you think? I had heard it was amazing, so when I saw it at a local thrift shop I was excited. I took it along on my recent journey to the Santa Fe Science Writers Workshop. I was sorely disappointed. I left it there for my friend to take to a thrift shop. I couldn’t even recommend that she read it. I am not sure why I finished it, to be honest, except that I usually do struggle through to the end. The barn burning, where the main character, Edgar, dies, is awful. But I disliked the book for a number of reasons beyond the ending.

To be fair, the prose is lovely at times. There are sections where the author digs deep into the psyches of the characters, especially Edgar and his mother, Trudy,which are brilliant. That may be why it received adulation from Stephen King and an Oprah endorsement. The novel has a leisurely pace, almost the whole way through, with only a few exciting moments where the pace is rapid-fire. A lot of time is spent at the beginning explaining Edgar’s muteness and how he learns to sign (and – really – the muteness hardly plays any role, he could have been a talking kid for all that it mattered). A lot of time is spent explaining the dogs, and how they are trained, as if a few details would not have been enough to help us get the idea. There is the big deal made about all of the meticulous breeding records for the dogs.

After his father dies and does the ghost bit to tell Edgar he was murdered (okay, why would the poison cause a burst aneurism? – this is so stupid), there are all of the letters between his grandfather and another trainer, and then Edgar still doesn’t understand. He talks to a shopkeeper who gives him a clue which he still can’t figure out….And all along I’m thinking that when Edgar finds the poison how on earth will he a) prove it killed his dad and b) that Claude was the one who used it? Edgar is supposed to be smart. He ought to realize that people might think he killed his dad if he finds the poison, especially since he did actually kill the old vet.

The villainous uncle’s role is weird. At times, he seems too sweet to have killed his brother. He loves animals, and they love him. He is gentle and sweet to Trudy and even pretty nice to Edgar. And why does Trudy, who had previously shared everything with Edgar after his father’s death, not warn him that they plan to sell part of the farm and breeding stock? Wroblewski tries to motivate this through Edgar’s resistance to his uncle, but it didn’t work for me.

The dogs are a wonderful detail, but was this a book about dogs or about Edgar? I really wonder, just as I wonder why Edgar had to spend an entire summer with Henry, in a kind of la-la-land that has no connection to the rest of the novel (and was boring). Was this a coming of age journey, which seemed to be for a while, or was it a murder mystery, a la Hamlet? The book wandered here and there and should have been cut by a good editor to half its length.

Despite all of the delving into psyches, Edgar doesn’t seem to grow up and learn anything, other than survival, and what is special about these dogs. But he doesn’t mature in any real way. His mother doesn’t grow or learn anything. She doesn’t prowl the roads trying to find her son when he runs away, as most mothers would. We don’t see much motivation for the evil uncle to kill the father and take over the farm (it isn’t a kingdom and it isn’t even clear he wants it or can make money from it).

In the end, I only liked two characters in the novel: the faithful dog, Almadine; and Henry, who takes care of Edgar and his dogs. And I wish that I had put this novel down halfway through instead of finishing the whole thing. This could have been a lovely book about a boy who couldn’t speak and had issues because of his muteness (say kids making fun of him) and bonded well with the dogs, or it could have been an adventure story about a boy who ran away with his very special dogs and took care of them and learned a lot and came home a different person, or it could have been a short take on Hamlet, or – well there were so many interesting ideas tossed around yet not fully fleshed out. I can buy into the ghost and the other magic, but I want a better story to go with it. There was so much here to turn into a truly great sage, and yet it fell flat.

That’s just my opinion, of course. Go to Amazon or Goodreads and look at the reviews. And tell me what you thought.

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  1. #1 by Literary Tiger on May 18, 2012 - 9:54 am

    I have this book on my bookshelf, but I never got around to reading it. I wondered why it garnered so much praise. It sounds like a dud.

    • #2 by annstanleywriting on May 20, 2012 - 1:13 pm

      Some people obviously love it. There are moments and even some pretty good sections, or I wouldn’t have even wasted a review on it, but there are so many wonderful reads out there that it seems sad to me that this one garnered so much hoopla.

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