The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski


When B. pulled The Story of Edgar Sawtelle out of her bag at last month’s book club reveal there was a silent sigh of dismay. I know I felt it. Despite the fact that the book has garnered heaps of praise and was flying off the shelf at Indigo last summer, I had no desire to read it. When my friend said she was going to take it with her when she went to England with her mom I said: “Don’t do it; this book weighs a ton!”

As it turned out,  of the ten members of my book club I was (along with B.) the only person who read it. Er…finished it. One person got about half way through, a few others read 50-100 pages. The book is l-o-n-g…562 pages but lest you think I actually judge a book by its length, let me say that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is very well written. I would have said that dog lovers would eat this book up- but this wasn’t the case with the dog lovers in my book club; none of them finished.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I didn’t love this book in the way most others have- well, the critics at least, who have compared this book to Shakespeare, an “American Hamlet” even (Mark Doty). The book concerns the Sawtelle family, parents Trudy and Gar and their son, Edgar, who is born mute. They live on a farm in Wisconsin where they breed dogs known as the ‘Sawtelle’ dogs, remarkable because they can read Edgar’s signs. When Gar’s younger brother, Claude, returns to the farm Edgar’s idyllic life starts to unravel and when his father dies suddenly, Edgar’s grief is palpable. As Claude grows closer to his mother and assumes more of a role on the farm, Edgar becomes obssessed with proving that Claude had something to do with his father’s death.

Things don’t work out quite as Edgar plans though, and he leaves the farm, taking three ‘Sawtelle’ dogs with him. Eventually, though, he returns to the farm to confront his uncle – with dramatic results. (I actually thought the ending was spectacularly melodramatic.)

Why do some books work and others not so much? I can’t fault Wroblewski’s writing. In some ways I felt like he jammed the book with every possible theme, like maybe this debut might mark the beginning and end of his literary career. Ultimately, though, there was just too much ‘dog talk’ – sits and stays and day-to-day kennel business that just wasn’t of interest to me and, in some ways, diluted the book’s larger themes of revenge and love.  It wasn’t that I had a hard time reading the book…I just never really invested my heart in Edgar’s story.

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