W is for Wishy-Washy Wow (Wroblewski)

What I read: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Basically, it is Hamlet.

With dogs.

I'm not giving anything away (although I may later) since a blurb on the dust jacket refers to the book as an "American Hamlet." In many ways, it makes a good deal more sense than Hamlet since a troubled fourteen-years-old boy who can't make up his mind is a good deal more understandable than a sulky thirty-three-years-old who can't make up his mind.

And Wroblewski provides magnificent insights into the original characters.

My two problems with the book are that it took forever to hook me, and the book changed from a story that echoed Hamlet to a story that retold Hamlet.

First, the beginning of the book, for me, was very, very slow. It is extremely readable and not dull. But I never would have kept reading if it wasn't my "W" book, and a lady from my bookclub hadn't recommended it.

I think this is a matter of personal taste, not writing. I like to start stories in the middle--bang! (This can't be blamed on the Sesame Street generation complex, by the way. I grew up without television. Let's face it: preference is just preference.)

Some people prefer books that introduce them to a person's life and then tell them every single itty-bitty detail about that life: a lot of non-plot romance books fall into this category. I detest them.

And some people prefer books that slowly unwind, inviting them into a world which they can inhabit breathe by breathe, moment by moment. I will confess that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of the few books of this type that I have read and loved. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle falls into this category. I didn't love it, but it is an excellent example of this type of writing.

In any case, as I mentioned before, the reading is painless, so I kept going (slowly). And about 2/3rds of the way through, the plot picked up tremendously, and I finished the book in about two sittings.

So my first problem with the book isn't really a complaint.

The second is. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

It is fairly easy to parse out whom the humans and dogs in the novel correspond to in Hamlet, but the book doesn't read (at first) like an allegory or direct analogy. That is, Almondine doesn't HAVE to represent Ophelia. She can just remind us of Ophelia. Forte doesn't have to be Fortinbras (although his purpose, otherwise, is unclear); he just needs to bring Fortinbras to mind.

Unfortunately, by the time the book hits the 1/2-way mark, it has begun to follow the play pretty closely. It is no longer a matter of the story reminding us of Hamlet. It IS Hamlet, and everything pays off as it does in the play.

This isn't done unintelligently; in fact, Claude's manipulation of Glen really brings home the oily smoothness of Claudius' manipulation of Laertes. But it does make the book feel a tad unorganic. Up to the 1/2-way mark, the book feels entirely organic. What happens happens as a result of a people coming together at a certain point in time. But the end, while not descending into the macabre or the totally contrived, feels like it might just. Soon.

Of course, Hamlet sort of feels this way too (witness audience laughter provoked by the end of Kenneth Branagh's otherwise fascinating Hamlet). Shakespeare didn't have to apologize because he wasn't trying to create American realism. Wrobelewski is. I won't say the effort fails because I don't think it does.

But. Still.

Granted, I think death is a cop-out (again, it wasn't for Shakespeare), so I have a problem with a book that pulls you along, bringing together multiple threads and teasing you with occasional variations . . . and then gives you what you knew happened the first time anyway. Eh? So, it's a little different (I have my own opinion about Essay's choice at the end), but 562 pages! I read 562 pages for a little different?

However, it says a great deal for Wroblewski's ability that I don't considered the time spent a complete loss.

In fact, for those of you of the third reader type, I think you would really enjoy this book!

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