Customer Reviews: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel (P.S.)
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on August 18, 2008
Sometimes a book just has the wrong ending, not a sad or loose end trailing kind of ending--both of those endings are just fine if they are the right ending for the story, but the wrong ending. 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' is a book with the wrong ending, making it a frustrating read.
Unanswered threads such as how Edgar's parents met or why Gar and Claude hated each other or exactly how Almondine died don't really affect the quality of the story; the author has given us enough clues to let us fill in those blanks on our own. Edgar's parents had created a lovely game of giving Edgar misinformation about their courtship. The truth, although good, as his mother said, would only be a letdown. Any tale of sibling rivalry goes back to Cain and Abel. We can fill in how Claude was jealous of Gar and how Gar resented Claude getting away with things. Almondine died because she was old and old dogs die and she died because she was Ophelia and Ophelia dies. It doesn't matter whether the car hit her (which I don't think happened) or whether she just died on the side of the road waiting for Edgar to return. Her fate was to die while Edgar was away.
But a wrong ending is a completely different matter. It can make us resent the time and emotion we have invested in a story. And the ending is wrong for this book whether you see it as a retelling of 'Hamlet' or as a dog story. 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' follows the plot in 'Hamlet' so closely that it is wrong that Trudy/Gertrude doesn't get the poison intended for Edgar and wrong that Claude/Claudius getting trapped in the burning barn doesn't feel more satisfying and dramatic. To leave Trudy out of the ghostly group hug at the end is, as several people have commented, just cruel. Why leave Trudy alive and destroyed at the end without the redemption of an afterlife with the ones she loved? What evil did she do to deserve a worse end than Claude? Remember, she didn't even ask Claude back. Edgar did when he realized that his mother would die if she didn't get help with the kennel.
If you look at the story as a dog story, then the ending is wrong as well. John Sawtelle picked dogs that had a special connection to their humans. Gar and Trudy carried this on in their dog breeding. That is the importance of the Haichiko story, in addition, of course, to its relevance as a ghost story in the 'Hamlet' parallel. Essay chose Edgar. So to have her choose to lead the other dogs off instead of coming into the barn to defend and protect Edgar, as Almondine did with the rabid animal, has her make an incomprehensible (and enormously wrong) choice. If Wroblewski wanted to show us that you can't breed loyalty, then why did the rest of the story show us that you can. Trudy has spent the entire book trying to get Edgar to understand what makes the Sawtelle dogs special and as soon as he gets it, the next step in the evolution of Sawtelle dogs, Essay, shows him that Trudy was wrong. To have Edgar go to the trouble of saving the kennel papers just to show us how worthless they are--the dogs have gone wild, Edgar is dead and Trudy catatonic--is a pretty nihilistic and wrong-headed conclusion, given the loyalty and love that have filled the rest of the story.
Are we supposed to believe that Edgar would allow Claude to get so close given his understanding of Claude's intentions? Are we supposed to believe that Trudy whose love for her son kept her from irrecoverable depression would not have found some way to get into the barn, even if she had to maim Glen further to break free?
'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' frustrates so many of us posting on this site because the ending feels so wrong. Could Wroblewski have just gotten tired of telling his story and wanted to be done or perhaps his editor was up against a time crunch and needed to get the book to bookstore shelves quickly? Whatever happened, it's a shame because the characters deserved a proper ending and so did we, the readers.
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on July 21, 2008
I'm having a really hard time believing that all these 5-star reviews are legitimate. Some of them don't even seem to be by someone who READ this book as they are full of factual errors. I cannot recommend this book, but will try to provide some insight into what you'll REALLY be getting if you buy it.

What's good: Author is a gifted wordcrafter, with an ability to pick poetic and unusual phrases to capture an image or feeling. The dog interactions in the wild are inspired and inspiring. The evoking of a time and place (rural Wisconsin in the 50's) is powerful.

What's not: Pacing is virtually unchanged throughout. There are dozens of plotlines that occupy pages and go nowhere and are never resolved or tied in (dog breeding debate, Forte, stray puppy, town fortune teller, role of Dr. Papideau, Henry and the dogs - for just a few). It's sort of like a long poem or a set of song lyrics that makes you sit back and appreciate it's beauty, but scratch your head at the point. Presented as a tragedy, but just disappointing, not cathartic. Evil personified (Claude) is just sort of grey and strange - no convincing explanation for source of his evilness or his motivation for ruining everything. No clear personal flaws presented in Gar, Trudy or Edgar to make them deserving of their fate - in fact quite the contrary. About 90% of the way through, all these threads have been spun and you're waiting for the author to work his magic of pulling them all together into a beautiful and coherent ending, and instead he just quits and literally burns it all down. It's not that I insist on a happy ending, but I insist on one that makes me feel there was a point to my journey.

In short, if you love Russian novels, go ahead. DON'T buy if you think you're getting a "dog story" or a "kid story".

Christmas Day, 2008

Thank you to all who took the time to read my review and comment so thoughtfully. I guess a book that inspires this much discussion must have something going for it.

In response to the comment that I got the time wrong; you are all correct. I think that the extremely rural setting made it feel more old-fashioned than the 70's, so that was why I mentally settled on the 50's as I read it. I grew up in the 70's in rural Pennsylvania, and this did not feel at all the same. But, I'll be more careful with my specifics if I post any more reviews.

My comments about other reviews being inaccurate related to a series of five-star "customer" reviews posted in the first month or so after Stephen King gave his gushing endorsement. No fewer than three of these "customer" reviews contained exactly the same substantial errors about Forte and characters in the book. (Even the wording of the reviews was only subtly different. I'm having a hard time finding the reviews now because there are so many.) At the time, I was deeply suspicious that the publishing house was manipulating the review system to push sales of this book. The whole Oprah/Stephen King/5-star review combo is incredibly powerful in driving sales, and I'm not sure it's completely objective.

And I'm a "she", not a "he." :) Keep reading and posting!
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on November 3, 2008
If you enjoy spending hours immersed in promising prose that concludes with one of the most dreadful endings in the history of American literature, then by all means buy this book. You will become invested in the characters, mesmerized by the setting, infatuated with the dogs, and absolutely sickened and enraged by the cop-out of an ending. It is as though the author expended all his artistry and had nothing but venom for the story at the end.
I understand tragedy, and I do not require or expect happy endings, but of all the ways this story could have ended, the worst of all possible worlds was chosen. The good guys lose, the bad guys lose, the marginal characters lose, the dogs lose, and ultimately the reader is the biggest loser of them all. The reader is left to resent the time spent getting to the conclusion. A refund of the cost of the book would not repay time wasted reading it.
At times, Wroblewski writes so well that he approaches the level of a Hemmingway or a Steinbeck; but he finishes so wretchedly that he falls far short of an amateur King. The reader is left to wonder why the author hated this story so much that he torched it too at the end.
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on October 17, 2008
I ordered this book through the Contra Costa County library service and picked it up at a local branch about two weeks ago. I finished it this morning; rarely, if ever, has a book left me with more of a feeling of having completely wasted my time. I cannot imagine what Oprah was thinking by, basically, recommending this book to Millions of people.

I actually enjoyed the first section of the book, that's roughly the first 125 pages or so.

But after that the book wildly veered off course into the most laughably implausible plot developments. To avoid spoilers, I'll refrain from spelling them out here.

However, since the book flap already mentions that Edgar winds up surviving on his own in the wilderness, I'll comment on that.

The author does not come up with a believable scenario to get Edgar out there into the wild. You wind up with the feeling that that is simply the direction in which the author was determined to go no matter how badly he had to twist his plot out of shape.

And then the ending. As other commentators here have mentioned - it is simply awful.

I didn't just hate it. It goes down in history as finalist for "one of the worst endings of all time."

By the end of the book I was left with a feeling that after 600 pages, absolutely nothing had happened except that everybody suffers. No character development; no insights on life of any kind; nothing that was in any way uplifting, redemptive or even interesting.

It was kind of like reading the book of Job - only without the appearance of God at the end.

All one is left with is one tragedy, after another, and another, and another and another.....

It almost turns into a slaughter fest -

Like the title says - Do not waste your time!
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on November 2, 2008
This was by far the most depressing book I have ever read. Once the bad things start happening, they just keep happening. Don't expect a silver lining, or a happy ending, there isn't one. I had to keep putting this book down for days to recover before i could continue reading. It left a hole inside me. I wish I had never read it.
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on December 14, 2008
How could Oprah recommend this absolutely horrible book? After I finished it I was absolutely angered that I had wasted my time on such a horrible piece of work. I honestly thought that the ending would bring it all together and tie things up nicely. I had to reread the ending many times to figure out what the heck was happening. So unsatisfying and idiotic in every way. Why was Almondine trying to make him get up from the burning barn if not to save him? His father had appeared to him only to ultimately lead him to sacrifice his life for nothing. The long line of breeding ending with the dogs sent to the wild. What???!!! Absolute crap. I would give it zero stars if I could.
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on July 26, 2008
I understand the angry responses of many readers. This book received a lot of positive press, creating much anticipation. The author does not lack talent (there is, for example, much beautiful description of the land), but there are decided problems with pacing, character motivation, and especially length. Like a number of others, I found myself wondering if I should give up on the book. I am interested in the human/dog connection, the spiritual bonds people form with animals; however, I found the minutia about dog training quite taxing. Edgar's slog through the forest was also given far too much time. What I found most difficult and unyielding, however, were the frequent metaphorical musings about time. I re-read many of these, hoping to get a clearer sense of the author's overarching theme, but these efforts availed me nothing. Additionally, I fully agree with those readers who have indicated confusion about character motivation. It is not clear what Claude is out to gain or why he should have such resentment towards his brother--whether his acquisition of the poison in Korea was indeed made with his brother in mind. Edgar's trek through the wilderness doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose either. Though we understand he fears being charged with the murder of the vet, the real point of the journey to the north (not to mention its duration) is not clear.

For those considering purchase of the book: you need to be forewarned that this is not a particularly satisfying or fresh story about the bond between dogs and humans. In fact, it's not really clear what the point of the story is... In the end, I felt annoyed and disappointed. I didn't have the sense, as I did with Shakespeare's Hamlet, that a sort of catharsis had come about, that the rot at the heart of the story had been cleared away. Were we readers supposed to think that Essay was taking her canine followers to Henry? Or were the dogs entering the new kingdom of the wild, to be governed by Forte (Fortinbras)? I really didn't get it. I do read literary fiction, but even quite effortful reading did not illuminate some of the stubbornly obscure passages here, nor did it provide me with sufficient pleasure for the time put in. Editors really do have an important role, and I think there's much they (and the author's teachers--Mr. Russo and Ms. Livesay, for example) could've done to help the plainly talented Mr. Wroblewski.
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This is an astonishing, mysterious, bewildering and profound novel. And even though the story is sad and heart-breaking, it is written so well that it has resulted in a deeply satisfying novel as well. Not since I read Yann Martel's mesmerizing novel, "Life of Pi", have I found myself so deeply absorbed in a novelist's magical creation as I was while reading "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle".

The novel begins with a needless killing of an injured, limping, stray dog with poison by a medicine man or herbalist. This brutal killing fits into the novel later, as the novel progresses.

The protagonist of the novel is a fourteen years old boy named Edgar Sawtelle, who was born mute. His parents - Gar and Trudy Sawtelle are dog-breeders, who live on a farm in a remote part of northern Wisconsin, not far from the Chequamegon National Forest. They breed and train a unique and special breed of canine developed by Edgar's grand father, John Sawtelle; hence the name of the breed: Sawtelle. The dogs earn good reputation not only for their noble temperament, but also for their intuitive ability to anticipate their masters' command, and then interpret and act on the command independently also. The family's peaceful farm life is disrupted when Claude, Edgar's charming, conniving paternal uncle visits them. Gar offers him a job at the farm and a place to stay. Soon Gar dies suddenly and mysteriously. Edgar suspects that Claude murdered Gar. He tries to prove that Claude did indeed murder Gar, but his plan misfires, and so to save himself from Claude he runs away into the Chequamegon woods, accompanied by three young dogs.

The author's vivid descriptions of nature, his ability to describe the terrors of the wilderness and the horrors of living in a jungle, and his decision to narrate a part of the story from a dog's perspective have added distinct charm to the novel. The magic of his pen is such that even the supernatural and paranormal incidents in the story seem to be natural, logical and believable.

David Wroblewski is a masterful narrator. His prose is spare but mellifluous; and even though it lacks the grandeur and splendor of Yann Martel's or Joseph O'Neill's prose, its understated elegance shines through: "Late in the morning he found himself navigating along a heavily washboarded dirt road. The limbs of the trees meshed overhead. Left and right, thick underbrush obscured everything farther than twenty yards into the woods. When the road finally topped out at a clearing, he was presented with a view of the Penokee range rolling out to the west, and an unbroken emerald forest stretching to the north - all the way, it seemed, to the granite rim of Lake Superior. At the bottom of the hill stood a little white farmhouse and a gigantic red barn. A milk house was huddled up near the front of the barn. An untopped stone silo stood behind. By the road, a crudely lettered sign read, "For Sale."

This novel is so extra-ordinary and so exquisitely written that I am sure that I shall be reading it again soon. Reading it was a great joy.
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on July 11, 2008
I'm sorry, but I couldn't wait for it to end. The Hamlet parallels are as subtle as a sledgehammer (Claude/Claudius, the Vet/Polonius, okay, but the dogs as "players" and Almondine as Ophelia?). The plot is far-fetched (no pun intended), sinister and creepy. The poison, the ether, the dog-fights--these are awful people. I wanted to get away from all of them. And what about Edgar's mother--what did she do to deserve all this sadness? I wanted to like this book--it's obviously touched a lot of people. I shared that feeling briefly in reading the chapter that describes Almondine's grief after Gar's death--it's beautiful. But otherwise, I just tried to plod through, but found it all so depressing. And if I hear the word "mow" one more time, I'm going to scream.
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on August 5, 2008
I heard about this book even before it was published and was very excited to read it. I love dogs, the plot sounded great, and the early reviews were that it was "An American Masterpiece!" Let me assure you--it is most definitely not.

Here are just a few of the many problems:

1. The characterization. I still have no idea really who any of the main characters are--what drives them, how they think, what they feel. I have vague, general ideas (as one might get from a thriller or mystery where plot is the point rather than the characters) but nothing at all that makes me care about any of them.

2. The plot. The basics--a mute boy, his dogs, running away from home--are promising enough, but Wroblewski just does not know what to do with them. His book reads like a first draft of a first novel of someone who has not yet learned how to hold all the pieces together. And he is in desperate need of an editor. Which brings me to my next point.

3. The Writing. It could easily have been half the length without sacrificing anything at all. There are whole pages that go nowhere and plot points that wander off into the woods never to be heard from again. And I DID read the whole entire book, all the way to the bitter, boring end, hoping that somehow things would all come together and the book would at least somewhat redeem itself. It did not.

4. The dogs. This is the most disappointing and most unforgivable aspect of the book for me. As a long-time dog lover (I grew up with them and have lived with them my whole life) I live for books about dogs--fiction, non-fiction, even kind of badly written books, as long as the dog part is well done. And I can promise you, this is not well done at all. The author must know something about dogs as his bio says he grew up on a breeding farm, but if so, he is clearly not capable of writing about them. The internal world he has created for them simply does not match how dogs are. If you want to read a good dog book, read Merle's Door, Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, Call of the Wild, Where the Red Fern Grows, Pack of Two, A Dog Year.

5. The ending. After being alternately annoyed and bored out of my mind for 500 pages, I still had hoped for some kind of payoff in the end. It is, after all, being marketed as a literary MYSTERY. Perhaps there was some kind of WOW, I CAN'T BELIEVE IT!! final scene? Nope. There's not. The ending is stupid, unsatisfying and has all the melodrama of a soap opera. It is not suspenseful, it did not warm my heart, it did not make me believe in redemption or the power of love. It didn't even make me want to go hug my dog. And that's really saying something for a "Boy and His Dog" kind of story.

My heart WAS filled with gratitude however that my copy was from the library so I could simply dump it in the return slot rather than curse the wast of money it would have represented had I purchased it.
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