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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Author One-on-One: Jennifer Egan and Téa Obreht

Jennifer Egan is the recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was also awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the author of The Keep, Look at Me, and the story collection Emerald City. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and sons in Brooklyn.

Jennifer Egan: One of the central powerful relationships in the book is between Natalia and her grandfather: it’s not the type of relationship we usually see as the primary relationship in a novel. Could you talk a little about that grandparent-grandchild relationship, your feelings about it in your own life and how it became central in this novel?

Téa Obreht: I grew up with my grandparents on my mother’s side, and they essentially raised me. As a kid, you resist the idea of your own parents having had lives and pasts of their own. Snuff me out if I’m wrong here, but I see that as something prevalent in your novel A Visit From the Goon Squad: a sense of the parent-child relationship being very tense and of children not wanting to live in their parents’ shadow. When you’re growing up, the lives of your parents aren’t that fascinating, but there is this fascination with grandparents. Because of that great amount of time that has passed between their youth and yours, and the fact that they lived entire lives before you even got there, you can’t really deny their identity as individuals prior to your existence they way perhaps you can with your parents. There’s also an awareness that the world was very different when they were living their lives.

Egan: Animals play such an enormous role in the novel: the tiger, the dog, Sonia the elephant, Darisa who seems to be part-human, part-bear. You write so movingly about animals that I found myself close to tears every time you wrote about the tiger from the tiger’s point of view. Do you have a strong connection to animals in your life? How is it that animals end up figuring so enormously in this story?

Obreht: I’m definitely, it turns out, the kind of person who’s a total National Geographic nerd. I’m there for all the TV specials. As I’ve gotten older I think my awareness of the natural world and animals’ relationship to people--both culturally and biologically--has grown. It was fun to write from the point of view of the tiger, and emotionally rewarding, but I think the animals also serve almost as markers around which the characters have to navigate. I don’t think that was something I did consciously, it just sort of happened. There is something jarring about seeing an animal out of place: there’s a universal feeling of awe when you see an animal, particularly an impressive animal, out of place.

Egan: There are really two worlds in the book which mingle and sometimes intersect: there’s the present day political, medical, scientific situation in which Natalia operates, and then there’s this more mystical, folkloric world of the grandfather’s past. How did these define themselves in your mind? Was it hard to move between them?

Obreht: Pretty early on in the writing I realized that mythmaking and storytelling are a way in which people deal with reality. They’re a coping mechanism. In Balkan culture, there’s almost a knowledge that reality will eventually become myth. In ten or twenty years you will be able to recount what happened today with more and more embellishments until you’ve completely altered that reality and funneled it into the world of myth.


A Letter from the Author

Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.

After completing my first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, I’ve found myself indulging in a sentimental mood. I pretend that this is due to my need to retrace my steps, to see how it all came together, and, by remembering what I did before, somehow speed my next project along; in fact, I am probably just procrastinating or being insufferable, mulling over memories that, due to the late hours, were doomed to an impregnable haze a long time ago. I dig through my “notes”: folded scraps of paper, the backs of torn-open envelopes where I doodled plot points and lines of dialogue, index cards with cryptic inscriptions—“BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WATERMELON?!?!?”—punctuated as though I’d had some kind of civilization-saving breakthrough.

For whatever reason, as I go through my notes, I spend much of my time revisiting the evolution of my characters.  Who’s been there the longest? Who was thrown out at the last minute? Who was the life and soul of the first draft, and then ended up with one dialogue in the third? Who’s been renamed, transformed completely into somebody else?

>In some ways, the answers to these questions are both pointless and intensely personal, like telling a long-distance friend about how you’ve fallen in love with a person they have never met: they can listen politely while you rattle off a list of traits or events, but a whole world of experience separates the storyteller from the listener. But I do believe that thinking about these things gets back to the vital question of artistic control, and the surprising ways in which your work takes on a life of its own. In The Tiger’s Wife, I found, of course, that core of the cast members— a tiger, his “wife,” a little boy—were all together at the outset, in the spring of 2007, peopling a lackluster short story about a deaf-mute girl who arrives in a snowbound village in pursuit of the escaped tiger with whom she performed in a traveling circus. But, to my surprise, I also found a then-minor character called Dariša the Bear.

Originally, he was a mean drunk, a ruthless and uncomplicated villain, hardened by religious fanaticism, and I wanted the reader’s revulsion with him to be simple and complete. When the story began to expand, and the village of Galina and the characters who live there expanded with it, there was no room for Dariša; his kind of villainy had been eclipsed by a far more sinister character, and he was extracted and put away. He wouldn’t find his way into the book again until one afternoon, almost a year later, when I found myself at the Moscow flea market of Ismailova—a townie-shunned tourist trap against which the few Russians I knew had cautioned me—and among the predictable lacquered matrioshkas, bootleg DVDs, prints of Soviet propaganda and fake Fabergé baubles, I met the bear-man. I can’t picture his face anymore, but I do remember that he had pitched his booth at the top of a wide, stone staircase, and that, draping down from the top like water, were the pelts of maybe two dozen brown bears of all shapes and shades, mouths agape. We must have talked—I can’t imagine not asking him where he was from, or whether he had done the killing himself—but I don’t remember the conversation. What I do remember is going home that afternoon and dredging up a man reincarnated as Dariša the Bear, a hunter and taxidermist whose obsession with death, drawn from great personal loss, is rooted in his desire to understand and preserve the majesty of things once living.

I would never have thought, at the outset of all of this, that of all the characters in The Tiger’s Wife, I would end up feeling closest to Dariša. Perhaps it is because in a roundabout way I have ultimately spent so much time with him; perhaps it is because, in the end, he becomes a man who seeks to capture life in the absence of it. After all, isn’t that what storytellers really do?


--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The sometimes crushing power of myth, story, and memory is explored in the brilliant debut of Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker's 20-under-40. Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living (and, in between suspensions, practicing) in an unnamed country that's a ringer for Obreht's native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman. The evolving story of the tiger's wife, as the deaf-mute becomes known, forms one of three strands that sustain the novel, the other two being Natalia's efforts to care for orphans and a wayward family who, to lift a curse, are searching for the bones of a long-dead relative; and several of her grandfather's stories about Gavran Gailé, the deathless man, whose appearances coincide with catastrophe and who may hold the key to all the stories that ensnare Natalia. Obreht is an expert at depicting history through aftermath, people through the love they inspire, and place through the stories that endure; the reflected world she creates is both immediately recognizable and a legend in its own right. Obreht is talented far beyond her years, and her unsentimental faith in language, dream, and memory is a pleasure. (Mar.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; First Edition edition (November 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780385343848
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385343848
  • ASIN: 0385343841
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (799 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,075 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation's list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

937 of 992 people found the following review helpful By TChris TOP 100 REVIEWER on February 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
By the time she is thirteen, Natalia has taken so many trips with her grandfather to visit the caged tigers that she feels like a prisoner of ritual. Then a war hundreds of miles distant breaks the ritual: the zoo closes, curfews are implemented, students are disappearing, and spending time with her grandfather seems less important than committing small acts of defiance: staying out late, kissing a boyfriend behind a broken vending machine, and listening to black market recordings of Paul Simon and Johnny Cash. When her grandfather is suspended from his medical practice because he is suspected of harboring "loyalist feelings toward the unified state," Natalia adopts new rituals that keep her at his side when he isn't paying clandestine visits to his old patients. In return, he takes her to see an astonishing sight that offers the hope for an eventual restoration of the rituals that made up their pre-war lives. Natalia's grandfather tells her that this is their moment: not a moment of war to be shared by everyone else, but a moment that is uniquely theirs.

The Tiger's Wife is filled with wondrous moments, small scenes that assemble into a novel of power and wisdom and beauty. As an adult doctor delivering medicine across new and uncertain borders, Natalia grieves for her deceased grandfather while recalling the lessons he taught and the stories he told -- stories that more often than not center on death: how it is faced, feared, and embraced. Death is everywhere in this novel: death caused by war, by disease, by animal and man and child. And there is death's counterpoint, a character who cannot die (or so the grandfather's story goes).
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245 of 269 people found the following review helpful By zewology on August 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
From the moment I first read a review of this book, I really wanted to like it. I thought the premise sounded interesting, and the author was praised for her highly superior writing skills.

Well, I will agree that Tea Obreht can write a beautiful sentence; a beautiful paragraph ... her writing flows very well. I tend to read with a very smooth, lyrical inner voice. In many novels, this trips me up at times because the author very suddenly changes sentence structure and interrupts the flow of the writing and the words themselves. This novel was a refreshing change in that regard, and at first I quite enjoyed it simply for this quality.

However, there is another flow a book must have, and that is a flow of story. Now, I'm not saying an author can't jump around in the telling, between points of view or side stories or time lines. I have certainly enjoyed novels that do this (an author that comes to mind is Kingsolver, who tends to change perspectives every chapter). But overall, there has to be a purpose to the jumping around. In this novel, I kept waiting for some indication of this, but I never got one, even at the end. The story didn't feel finished to me; it almost didn't feel like a story at all.

Another way in which I judge a novel is whether or not I *really* want to read it. It's not the sole indication of great writing, but for me to consider a book "good" I have to want to keep reading. Unfortunately, it was the exact opposite for this novel. I was constantly putting it down after, say, ten pages, and having to force myself to pick it back up. It's taken me a few weeks to read (with other things in between); this is an eternity for me.
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224 of 250 people found the following review helpful By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Tiger's Wife is an audaciously original book, all the more so when one reflects that the author is only in her mid-twenties. It takes place in a Balkan location - likely Belgrade and the surrounding countryside - and focuses on a young woman - Natalia's - search for the truth about the last days of her grandfather.

The narrative is woven around Natalia's remembrances of two fable-like stories narrated to her by her grandfather, which weave tighter and tighter and ultimately reveal their truths. There is a magical realism quality to these stories, which encompass the haunting tale of a rogue tiger, an abused deaf-mute woman who is feared by the villagers and rumored to be the tiger's wife, Darisa the bear and tiger hunter, and a "deathless man" who may be the nephew of Death itself, whose appearances often portend catastrophe.

Whew! There are hints of Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, perhaps Arabian Nights as the narrator seeks to get to the truth by working through the deconstruction of the mythology. To add yet another layer, the grandfather is very attached to his edition of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which he carries everywhere. That allegorical book, of course, is a story of a boy raised by wolves when a tiger attacks an encampment, killing his father. Years later he finds himself back in "civilization", which he finds far less civilized than his jungle haunts.

Similarly, at the heart of The Tiger's Wife, a pampered tiger becomes "free" and reverts back to his original nature, placing the only person with the compassion to feed him at risk. Ms. Obreht writes, "If things had turned out differently, if that winter's disaster had fallen in some alternate order...the rumors that spread about the tiger's wife might have been different...
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