Having been honored as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club and having received strong reviews from critics (among them, Janet Maslin of the New York Times) and authors (with Stephen King topping the list), David Wroblewski’s first novel, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” went on to become a best seller last year. Sadly, it does not live up to the hype.
The author, a full-time software creator, is said to have taken ten years to pen the 560-page novel. Somewhere along the way he also received a degree in creative writing. The two disciplines apparently do not mix, nor did the extended time he took help.
Mr. Wroblewski’s story is a none-too-veiled modern-day version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” complete with the ghost of the slain father appearing to his guilt-ridden son, and an evil uncle who quickly moves into his dead brother’s bed with his all-too-willing former sister-in-law. The similarities in plot (and, to a lesser extent, in characters) engender some interest, but Mr. Wroblewski’s story-telling talents are woefully inadequate to the task he sets out for himself, and the result is a far from satisfying reading experience.
The story itself is also a problem. Dogs are meant to play a central part, but their purpose in the story is muddled. Indeed, the focal point of the tale is never clear. Are the dogs intended to represent the Danish kingdom in Shakespeare’s play? If so, they are a poor substitute, especially since the “kingdom” seems almost irrelevant to the basic story line, such as it is.
Mr. Wroblewski does write with a certain poetic flair. At times, his scenic descriptions are wonderfully drawn. But lovely sentences and flowing paragraphs do not make for a good novel unless they tell a story in the process.
Chief among the book’s many flaws is its length. It is too long by at least several hundred pages. Whole plot lines are developed and then go nowhere.
For example, a lengthy portion of the book has the hero (the Edgar of the title is a 14-year-old who, for reasons never explained, was born mute but not deaf) living on the run in the wilderness with three of the dogs from the family’s kennel. (They raise and train dogs for placement with owners who want specially trained dogs, also for reasons that are never really explained.)
Page after page of this lengthy part of the book details how the boy survives with his dogs (mainly by raiding vacated cabins he comes upon as he lives in the wild). He ultimately befriends a cabin-owner, but the friendship also goes nowhere, other than that two of the dogs end up staying with the cabin-owner when the boy leaves. (Yawn.)
The wilderness segment also includes visits from another ghost, but his appearances seem to belong to a different story, as they certainly don’t make sense in this one.
Of course, as a copy of “Hamlet,” there is an Ophelia (a dog in this tale), a Laertes (a non-descript town constable), a Polonius (a veterinarian, the constable’s father), a Gertrude, and a Claudius. They’re all in the story, but none have much resemblance to the originals. It’s as if Wroblewski thought of how neat it would be to mimic Shakespeare’s story and characters without understanding how to create a compelling reason to care about his version and his surrogates.
And then there is the ending, which, to put it mildly, is a hodge-podge of a mess. Characters die, as in “Hamlet,” but not with the dramatic impact one would expect (or hope for) as justification for the tedium that has led to their demise. In fact, the ending is so ambiguous that some characters appear not to die, even though they seem to have come close and despite the fact that their futures are left unsettled (if anyone really cares).
The dogs don’t even seem to have much purpose in the book’s final pages, notwithstanding the author’s decision to end his tale with them. They just run off, more or less as a pack, headed for wherever they choose to go. Mr. Wroblewski doesn’t bother to tell his readers where that might be. He seems to think we should be satisfied (perhaps even impressed?) with the uncertainty of their destiny. Or maybe he didn’t know himself. That explanation would be more in keeping with what he presents in the rest of his very amateurish effort.
Oprah, next time, read the book first.