Posted on Jul 10, 2015 in Fiction

by David Wroblewski

HarperCollins, 2008

Edgar Sawtelle is mute – though he is not deaf.  We meet him in the first chapter – a young boy reading old documents that give him and us a history of how the Edgar’s parents came to dwell near the great red barn and how the Sawtelle dogs began to be bred.   We ease in to the story through Edgar’s eyes though we will hear bits and pieces told by other characters too.  Trudy his mother, Claude his father’s ex-con brother and even through the eyes of Almondine, Edgar’s “nurse-maid” dog.  (This latter not an easy point of view to write but David Wroblewski makes it believable, moving.)

In her interview with David Wrobleweski, Diane Rehm suggested that Edgar Sawtelle was a boy and a dog book for grownups.  And it will resonate with all of us who love dogs.  But the book is more than that.  It’s a human story that walks around the dilemmas of life.  The parents who realize their child cannot speak, the child fascinated by words he cannot speak, driven to communicate, and brothers who cannot love one another.

It is not easy read this book.   By that I don’t mean that the prose wasn’t luxurious, the melt in your mind, delicious kind of read.  And the characters!   So real I half expect to run into them next time I’m in town.   Or maybe it’s just that they are so familiar.  Variations on a theme,  I’ve met them before in other human (and story) forms  – even the ghosts.  And it’s not that the plot is so dense, complex.  This is not a Russian novel, but it is a classic, reaching back through Shakespeare to the Greeks, in order to tell of love, betrayal, murder, revenge, and what the seers know – the inevitable consequences of revenge.

It’s that last that makes this novel hard to read at times.  There’s tragedy in these pages, inevitable, see-it-coming-a-mile-away kind of tragedy.  As the tenor shifts from descriptions of pastoral bliss to ominous foreshadowing, the knot collects in the pit of the stomach, the body tenses (even while relaxing in a chair on the beach!) and you know you’ve got to stop reading this book just before bedtime.

I’m not warning you off.  I’d read this book again. (Stephen King says the same, and though it is not exactly his genre, there is a passage or two in there pertaining to the above mentioned ghost that I don’t doubt he wishes he could steal!)  But I knew where we were headed.  It was inevitable in a way.  And yet, it was also strangely satisfying, in the way classic stories of tragedy can be.

Near the end of the novel Edgar understands that we swim “in a river of chance and coincidence.”   That the way we spend our lives has much to do with what floats our way.   We lament the road not taken, but more often than not we don’t really have much choice, Wroblewski seems to say.  Life presents itself, we react, and the dominos of our life begin to fall.  Once in a while we have a chance to try it differently, but only to the extent that we can weave the past into the present.

Try not to read too many reviews of this book before you plunge in.  I did – and thus  knew which Shakespeare tragedy served as source.  Like one of the callers on the Diane Rehm show, I almost wish I hadn’t known.

If you care to hear the Diane Rehm intervew with David Wroblewski on June 29, 2008 see;