07 January 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Sawtelle family has spent decades breeding and training their own unique breed of dogs on their rural northern Wisconsin farm. Gar and Trudy Sawtelle have raised their only child, mute teenager Edgar, to help with the family business; Edgar is happy and well-adjusted. Then his idyllic life is shattered when his father's estranged, enigmatic brother Claude returns from a long absence and moves in with the family. After a tension-filled stay, Claude leaves, but Edgar's father dies mysteriously shortly thereafter. Trudy and Edgar do their best to keep up the farm on their own, but Claude soon weasels his way into the family business...and into Trudy's affections. Edgar has a surreal encounter with an apparition claiming to be his father's ghost who accuses Claude of murder, and Edgar becomes determined to uncover the truth behind his father's death...

Sound familiar? If that synopsis had you going, "Now, wait a minute! I've heard that somewhere before," then I am proud of you. You either must have paid attention in your English classes or you remembered my teaser from my last post, because David Wroblewski's fascinating novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is a retelling of Shakespeare's classic play Hamlet, with the setting transferred from the courts of medieval Danish royalty to rustic Wisconsin farm country. I love Shakespeare (especially his tragedies), and I also enjoy well-written retellings of his work. Wroblewski, for the most part, stays with the original story, yet his take is inventive and well-rendered. Rather than simply retelling the story with different characters and settings, he makes his version his own - his take on the ghost scene and the epic showdown at the end are original, believable adaptations of the original which stay true to the source but are fresh interpretations that fit Wroblewski's setting.

As fun as it is to read this novel as a comparison, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is fully capable of standing on its own merits. Wroblewski vividly recreates the rugged, northern Wisconsin setting (which is where he was raised), and his meticulous description of the Sawtelle's unique business is captivating. The characters are also well-crafted. I just loved Edgar - he is clever and sensitive, but he's not quite as brooding as Hamlet. Claude also ranks as one of the most despicable villains I've encountered in fiction in awhile. I was ready to volunteer to help Edgar kill him, but the stiff penalties for aiding and abetting literary vengeance made me back off and let Edgar handle it...

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a long novel (over 550 pages!), and I did find it a bit slow at times. Not that it's boring - it isn't. The slow parts are rich in atmosphere and are pivotal to the story. I believe my problem was more a matter of expectations. I assumed the story would follow the structure of Shakespeare's play, starting shortly after the murder. This novel, instead, starts at the beginning - long before Gar's death - and works its way forward. After I started reading it, I realized that Wroblewski's decision to structure his novel this way made sense, because it gave the much needed background information and allows the story to build to its ominous, inevitable conclusion. After I realized that, I didn't have a problem with the length, so I believe it's a matter of not judging a book by its predecessor more than anything.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is Wroblewski's debut novel and I am thoroughly impressed with his talent. Few authors would attempt such an ambitious first novel - a retelling of one of the world's most famous stories. But Wroblewski infuses so much originality into this novel that it comes off as far more than just a simple imitation. If you are a fan of Hamlet, you will love this contemporary reworking of that classic. If you're a fan of good books, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle will satisfy your needs, too.

Next Time: I will try to review Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, the first in the Percy Jackson series. Scott and Penguins Quack both recommended the series to me. So far, I have really enjoyed the book (Yay! A fun read!) and will try to have a review up this weekend.


  1. Interesting! Hamlet lover here, so I will have to check this one out.
    OH! You will love The Lightning Thief. Love love love it. Can't wait. :D

  2. Scott, I think you will like Edgar Sawtelle. It's a fascinating book, and Wroblewski pulls off the Hamlet connections well.

    I am almost done with The Lightning Thief and I really do love it. It's a nice change from what I have been reading. Thanks for telling me about it! :D

  3. Man, this is bugging me bc I keep thinking I've heard of this somewhere else, maybe on the radio? I found this to be an interesting choice, Zella. Thanks for the review.

  4. Eric, you're welcome! This book was really popular when it came out a couple of years ago, so I bet you did hear about it somewhere. It's a good read - very unique. :)