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The Dogs of Babel Hardcover – June 13, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

The quirky premise of Carolyn Parkhurst's debut novel, The Dogs of Babel, is original enough: after his wife Lexy dies after falling from a tree, linguistics professor Paul Iverson becomes obsessed with teaching their dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lorelei (the sole witness to the tragedy), to speak so he can find out the truth about Lexy's death--was it accidental or did Lexy commit suicide?

In short, accelerating chapters Parkhurst alternates between Paul's strange and passionate efforts to get Lorelei to communicate and his heartfelt memories of his whirlwind relationship with Lexy. The first 100 pages or so bring to mind another noteworthy debut, Alice Sebold's brilliant exploration of grief, The Lovely Bones. Unfortunately, the second half of The Dogs of Babel takes too many odd twists and turns--everything from a Ms. Cleo-like TV psychic to an underground sect of abusive canine linguists--to ever allow the reader to feel any real sympathy for the main characters. Parkhurst's Paul Iverson can certainly be appealing at times, and his heartbreak is often quite palpable ("...for every dark moment we shared between us, there was a moment of such brightness I almost could not bear to look at it head-on."). But his mask-maker wife Lexy--Paul's driving inspiration--is a character whose spur-of-the-moment outbursts, spontaneous fits of anger, and supposedly charming sense of whimsy (on their first date, they drive from Virginia to Disney World, eating only appetizers and side dishes along the way), become so annoying and grating that it's hard to believe anyone could ever put up with her, let alone teach their dog to speak for her.

Despite its cloying tone, The Dogs of Babel marks a notable debut. Parkhurst possesses a wealth of inspired ideas, and no doubt many readers will respond to the book, but one hopes that the author's future efforts will be packed with richer character development and less schmaltz. --Gisele Toueg

From Publishers Weekly

It's a terrific high concept: a woman falls from a backyard tree and dies; the only witness is the family dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. To find out what happened-accident? suicide?-her grieving husband tries to teach the dog to talk. Parkhurst's debut novel has been getting a lot of pre-pub attention, probably mostly for this concept, because the execution of this first novel is flawed. The tantalizing prospect of linguistics professor Paul Iverson attempting to teach Lorelei to talk is given short, and erratically plotted, shrift. Paul's narration oscillates between his present-day experiences and the backstory of his romance with Lexy Ransome, a mask maker. The two meet when Paul drops by Lexy's yard sale, buys a device for shaping hard-boiled eggs into squares, then returns with a bunch of square eggs ("And we stood there smiling, with the plate between us, the egg-cubes glowing palely in the growing dark"). This incident, a maxi-combo of cute and sentimental, defines much of the couple's love story (on their first date, Lexy whisks them off to DisneyWorld), marking much of this novel as a sentimental, manipulative romance not unlike James Patterson's Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas; some readers will adore it, while others will gag even as the pages darken toward tragedy. Few will relish the sketchy account of Paul's work with the dog, which goes nowhere until it veers, bizarrely and unbelievably, toward an underground group performing illegal surgical experiments on dogs. Parkhurst is a fluid stylist, and there are memorable moments here, as well as some terrific characters (particularly the enigmatic Lexy), but one gets the sense of an author trying to stuff every notion she's ever had into her first book, with less than splendid results.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown; First Edition edition (June 13, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316168688
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316168687
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (442 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #608,638 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

207 of 225 people found the following review helpful By Excession on June 11, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I finished this book three days ago, and I still have strong feelings floating around because of it. The Dogs of Babel is an emotionally painful reading experience, and for me, one of the most intensely sad books I've ever encountered (but that's a good thing -- genuine emotion is hard to come by in this post-modern meta-fiction riddled contemporary literary period).
You've probably read how this book is about a man, Paul Iverson, who is trying to teach his dog to tell him why his wife died in a fall ... but it's not a gimmicky book. It's about grieving, self-examination, love, and how complicated people and relationships can be. People complain that there are plot events that are unrealistic or far-fetched, but I'd contend that they are missing the point: this is the most emotionally honest book I've come across recently. As the reader learns more about Paul and his wife, he becomes more invested in Paul's plight, so much so that the pain is real and raw. If you want to feel for a character in a novel, then this book is certainly for you.
The caveat, though, is that The Dogs of Babel is an intense experience, which may not be for you depending on your current circumstances. If I had recently experienced a loss, I doubt I could've gotten through it at all (at least without a breakdown). I'd also be careful if you're feeling emotionally fragile since I can't get it out of my head three days later with no end in sight for me (when was the last time a book hung around with you for some time after you finished it?).
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By J. H. Kling Jr. on February 12, 2005
Format: Paperback
Carolyn Parkhurst has a wonderful way of evoking scenes from the merest whispers of words. This may be by necessity, as the novel is framed as alternating chapters of approximately five pages each in which she follows her character Paul Iverson through flashbacks of his life with his wife, Lexy, and the sad present that finds Paul piecing together the mystery of how and why Lexy died. The brisk pacing and Parkhurst's faculty for creating vignettes that your mind fleshes out make this a quick and not altogether unsatisfying read.

Lexy's character is certainly the most compelling, not the least because of her having died in the opening sentence. Lexy is complex in the most satisfying way, both laughter and sorrow, sunshine and darkness. Her appeal drives the novel, and we as readers wnat to know more about her. We, like Paul, want to unravel the mystery not only of her death, but of Lexy herself.

Unfortunately, Paul himself seems more alive (and believeable) in the flashbacks with Lexy. Alone with their dog, Lorelei, in the absence of Lexy, Paul is not just a figure of grief, but a character who seems too much an inhabitant of the page. That is, the flashbacks seem to be a part of a world, a fictive reality where we believe the characters continue on after we stop reading about them. But the Paul of the present seems too much a writer's sketch, and the second half of the book is fraught with worse sins of writing.

The passages about Wendell Hollis and the Cerberus Society are very nearly unreadable, and don't bear explanation here. The psychic, Lady Arabelle, is likewise an uncomfortable and ill-considered plot device.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Dianna Setterfield on September 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Prior to reading this novel, I wasn't sure if I wanted to or not. I had heard good things about it, but I didn't think I'd find it very interesting. Boy was I wrong! The Dogs of Babel is officially on my list for the best books I've read this year.
Paul Iverson's wife, Lexy, is found dead after an apparent fall from an apple tree in their yard. The only witness is their dog, Lorelei, who cannot relay the answer to Paul's most important question -- did Lexy fall on accident, or was it suicide? As a linguistics professor, Paul does a lot of research and work with the spoken word. Why couldn't he teach Lorelei to talk? So Paul takes a sabbatical and embarks on the process of teaching Lorelei to say what she knows about that fateful day.
I loved every minute of this book. The Dogs of Babel is beautifully written and I commend Carolyn Parkhurst for writing this story. However, it is more about teaching a dog to talk. The flashbacks of Paul and Lexy's life together are the best parts of the book. Lexy is a free-spiritied and troubled character, and their courtship and marriage was incredibly romantic and tragic at the same time. And despite some sensitive material about dog abuse, I still found The Dogs of Babel an exquisite read.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Candice on September 1, 2004
Format: Paperback
This story is painful and hopeful all rolled in a coating of grief. If you have ever lost a love either by death or dumping you can relate to Paul's emotional struggles. Especially when he wonders how his lovely but mysterious wife could have wound up dead under the tree. Their courtship was beautiful and yet Lexi snaps into rages that Paul thinks will be calmed by their love. The writing is seductive and her word choices are most unique. This tale will pull you along even when your logical mind tries to throw a tantrum. Just go with's a story after all and meant to be an escape. This is one of the best stories I have read in a long time. Not the most well written or ploted but the best emotional heart tugging story.

I can see how animal lovers would be upset at the subplot of surgery performed on beloved dogs but I would say that it's far from "graphic", disturbing yes but only because the author's writing is so real that we believe this to be happening. At that point in the story, we as the reader have become attached to Lorelei and fear for her.

I found myself hoping Paul would snap out of it but knowing that dealing with grief is not an overnight process Many reviewers have critizied him for being so blind to Lexi's obvious instability, but when you are in love, you want so badly to overlook those flaws. Her rages were few and far between so that he could almost forget them but near the end he begins to notice how difficult it was living with her moods. I think Lexi felt his drifting and decided to set him free by killing herself. Twisted but to a disturbed person you can see how she knew she was a burden to their love. Flashback to Disney and she talks about how she "ruined everything" by getting upset.
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