Just a week ago I was having nightmares from Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a dark novel of the apocalypse. Now I'm having them* from the most buzzed-about, feel-good, coming-of-age bestselling novel of the summer: David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
Now, granted. This is a novel about a boy and his dogs. I am not a dog person. Emphatically.** Ergo, I had no business reading this novel. But it had buzz! It's a first novel! It's set in northern Wisconsin! It's a bestseller! I felt that I had to.
Here's the first issue; the book synopsis is: "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. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm--and into Edgar's mother's affections." (From the dust jacket.)
Sound familiar? That's right--we have a modern day retelling of Hamlet on our hands. (Or, as one reviewer has referred to it, Hamlet meets Huck Finn.) It probably doesn't help that I've already read one modern retelling of Hamlet this year (and it was a LOT better), or that Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear, is one of my most-hated books ever. And I like it when old stories are cleverly retold. But Hamlet meets Huck Finn? God, talk about trading on the literary reputation of others.
Second issue: On page 30, we have the first chapter of several, told from a DOG'S point of view. I find that obnoxious. I do not find it literary. I do not find it brave. I do not find it avant garde. I find it annoying as hell.
Third issue: This book is 562 pages long. Maybe if I was the type of person who got four or more weeks of vacation a year, that would be acceptable. I don't, and it's not. Even if Wroblewski was going for a massive American epic marriage between Hamlet and Huck Finn (God help us), I'm sorry, but you should be able to do that in 400 pages. Where have all the good editors gone?
So yes. I am defying everyone who has loved this book, which is evidently pretty much all the reviewers and the majority of the American book-buying public when I say: Skip it. I don't care. I feel good saying it. And, also? If you're looking for Shakespeare retellings, try Lin Enger's Undiscovered Country (which is the other Hamlet book I read this year). Sure, it's a YA novel, but it's only 320 pages and roughly a million times better. Or, if you need a movie instead of a book, even watching the BBC's modern adaption of Macbeth (with James McAvoy, rowr) will still save you hours.
*I'm not kidding. Last night I dreamt I was reading some other novel, and although it was pretty good, the last chapter was told from a dog's point of view. I woke up screaming.
**This situation is not helped by living in a neighborhood where some of our "neighbors" regularly let their huge stupid dogs wander around unleashed.