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Book Review—The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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Author: Molly Lundquist

Here's a publishing rarity—a literary novel based on the darkest of Shakespearean tragedies becomes a huge commercial success. That rarity is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Much of the novel's success is due, of course, to Oprah's imprimatur as one of her book club picks. Even so, there must be more to it than Oprah's popularity, something that attests to the wide appeal of this densely packed, tragic novel.

The book has been described as epic, coming-of-age story, mystery, thriller and, of course, tragedy. Something for everyone. Words like compelling, imaginative, suspenseful, heart-wrenching, enchanting...and more...have issued out of the keyboards of critics. And every superlative is correct—Edgar Sawtelle is a great read! (One more superlative.)

In the vein of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear, Wroblewski's novel is an updated Hamlet. The Danish kingdom in this case is a Wisconsin farm, operated by the Sawtelle family as a kennel, famed for its line of dogs.

The story opens with a mysterious prologue set in Korea during the war: an unnamed buyer buys an unnamed poison, its potency tested on a stray dog wandering the streets. We wait for the poison to make its re-entry into the story—and it does. Years later Claude Sawtelle visits the family farm, now run by his brother Gar and wife Trudy. Edgar, the couple's 14 year-old son is mute. Yet in spite of, or more likely because of, his muteness, Edgar develops an uncanny ability to communicate with his dogs. Their connection—boy and dogs—borders on the atavistic, elemental, even mystical.

But Claude's presence disrupts the family's idyllic existence, and Edgar senses the growing tension between his father and uncle. When Gar dies suddenly, Edgar suspects Claude, who gradually insinuates himself into the family, and into Trudy's bed. After another deadly accident, Edgar takes off into the wilds accompanied by three of his dogs. He finds safety and temporary respite with an eccentric but kindly loner. Yet the inexorable crush of fate propels Edgar to return to the farm and settle accounts with his uncle. From there the story rushes to its breathtaking conclusion.

For all its intense plotting, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a powerful contemplation of that thin layer of order and civility that overlays both humans and dogs—and how easy it is for both species to revert to their basic, instinctive natures. Civilization, it turns out, is only a veneer.

About the author: Molly Lundquist is owner of LitLovers (, an online resource for book clubs and solo readers. LitLovers brings together Molly's life-long love of reading, writing, and teaching. The website includes a large list of in-depth reading guides, book recommendations and reviews, free online literature courses, international book club recipes, and plenty of "how-to" tips for book clubs, including tips for kids book clubs.

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