When I finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Monday night, I really had to stop myself from throwing it at the wall.
I absolutely loved it for more than 400 pages and then the ending was a total, unbelievable mess–a hodge-podge of literary allusions from King Lear to Call of the Wild to Rebecca to The Jungle Book, an utter betrayal of the fabulous characters–human and canine–that he had brought to full, three-dimensional life.
The whole novel is an adaption of Hamlet, so I suppose I should have expected it to be a *ahem* tragedie. Here we go: Edgar’s father dies, he suspects his uncle Claude (get it?), sees his father’s ghost who confirms he was murdered (get it?), Claude puts the move on Edgar’s mother Trudy (get it?), there’s a prologue of buying poison (get it?), and Trudy lets Claude move into her bedroom only a few months after the father’s death (get it?). I won’t even go into the end. Just read the Hamlet plot summary.
But while I was reading it I didn’t even bother with making these connections. Had I done so, I would have liked it much less. As it was, I abandoned myself to the narrative, to Edgar, to the dogs.
I have a Shiloh Shepherd, who are very much like Sawtelle dogs. They are bred for size, intelligence, problem-solving, companionship, health, conformation. I trained with a search and rescue team for a year when I got my dog, whose mother and two half brothers were operational on the team. Then I did sheepherding with my dog, who became the top ranked herding Shiloh so far, despite his often neurotic behavior.
So everything about the Sawtelle dogs was utterly fascinating, and accurate, except one strange slip where someone runs their hand lovingly over the dog from croup to withers, which is the wrong way and would stand the dog’s hair all on end. He made a couple of other tiny off notes for me, but nothing that bumped me out of the story.
In fact until the last 50 pages or so I loved it as much as Water for Elephants, which was my favorite book of the last few years. Sara Gruen managed to find the perfect logical and satisfying outcome, giving her characters credit for wit and humor and bravery. Literarily, it should have been right down the line of Water for Elephants, wherever you might place that on a literary-commercial spectrum. So he had NO RIGHT to make such a disorganized, untrue to the characters, senseless hash of things at the end.
With Sawtelle, at the end Wroblewski just throws his Hamlet cards in the air and storms out of the novel. The novel isn’t “literary” enough for him to get away with such a downer ending, especially one that had every character acting in ridiculous ways. We have the wonderful dog Almondine cast as Ophelia. We have a Polonius character, and Polonius’s son plays Lear at the end. Edgar, who “feigns madness” by running away for damned good reasons, returns for no discernable reason from a Stephen King The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon wilderness experience. This is exactly where the novel’s internal logic falls apart and the author begins to sweat and mutter to himself as he brutally shoe horns the story and characters into the Hamlet mold.
Edgar Sawtelle is beautifully written, but has sections that are long and pointless, for example, the sequences with the ghost in Henry’s barn. If he hadn’t mutilated the ending, I would have forgiven everything. I was that much in love. His characterization of dogs is the best I’ve ever read or imagined. Trudy and Edgar and Gar, Henry, were all living, breathing, real–until the end when they behaved in ways they never would have. In great fiction, the characters are real. You know them, believe in them, love them, hate them. They live. He had all that going and then lost it at the end. Unforgiveable.
In search and rescue we had a truism: Trust your dog. In writing fiction, perhaps the motto should be: trust your characters.
20. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
19. A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin
18. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
17. The Voyage of the Narwhal, Andrea Barrett
16. The Shadow Isle, Katherine Kerr
15. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
14. David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Coriloff Affair, Irene Nemirovsky
13. Th1rteen R3asons Why, Jay Asher
12. Five Go to Smuggletop, Enid Blyton
11. And Then We Came to the End, Fabulous, just like my experiences at a Nashville PR firm, Joshua Ferris
10. The Tenderness of Wolves, Cold, but no Cold Mountain, Stef Penney
9. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Paul Torday
8. Dragonhaven, Robin McKinley
7. The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo
6. The Asolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie Herman
5. The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff
4. Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
3. Inkspell, Cornelia Funke
2. Riding Lessons, Sara Gruen
1. Summer People, Brian Groh
16-20. The Eustace Diamonds, The Prime Minister, The Duke’s Children, Can You Forgive Her, Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope,
13-15. LOTR, three volumes.
5-12 Island, Castle, Valley, Sea, Mountain, Circus and Castle of ADventure, Enid Blyton
4. Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson
3. The Silver Princess in Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson
2. Captain Salt in Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson
1. Earth Abides, George R. Stewart