Posted by: chartroose | November 11, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski, 2008, 533 p.

Another Doprah recommendation, blah!  I bought this way before she glommed onto it!

I mentioned in a previous post that it was taking me forever to get through The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and I wasn’t quite sure why.  I’d pick it up and read a few pages and then get distracted and move on to something else.  I must not have liked it all that much.  It never totally connected with my readerly sensibilities, but the writing was pretty good and the dogs were interesting, so I slogged on.

Now, it’s time for a little rant…I think a lot of people want to seem more intelligent than they are (are you listening Oprah?), so they pretend to enjoy novels that are pegged as “literate” and “cerebral” and blather on and on about how the novel touched them and changed their perceptions and yada, yada, yada.   Throw the word “Shakespeare” into the mix and everyone hops on the love train.  If you read novels that are loosely based on Hamlet and say you love them, then everyone will see that you’re nearly as smart as Stephen Hawking, won’t they?  Mensa will be banging on your door any day now!  I guess what I’m trying to say is that many reviewers (both paid and unpaid) who have waxed lyrical over the verisimilitude of this so-called literary masterpiece are, well, fibbing.  In truth, they feel pretty “meh” about the novel, just like me.  If I ever publish a novel and want to get people to read it, I’ll develop a humpback whale as the main character and say the novel is based on Richard III.  It’ll be bigger than Harry Potter!

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle worked best for me when it was solely about the boy and his dogs.  My favorite section of the novel was the lengthy part in the middle when Edgar was on the run with several of his companions.  It was beautiful and moving and everything the rest of the book should have been, but wasn’t.  For a story this big, I felt that the scope of most of the novel was way too small.  I grew tired of the farmhouse, and I grew tired of the tedious dog training parts.  The dog training blather would have been more effective if Wroblewski had added more “dog chapters” where the reader gets to glimpse the workings of a dog’s mind. 

Something was off about the ending as well.  Knowing Shakespeare, I was expecting a total free-for-all; a screamin’, shoutin’ showdown, and instead, it just kind of went “putter, putter, putter” like Tuffy the Tugboat.  I was blowing raspberries when a particular individual met his fate, because it was so totally anticlimactic.  The character (and I) deserved a better sendoff.  Every dog, but not every novel, has its day.  

If you want to read a good modern Shakespeare influenced novel, try Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Money by Martin Amis.  If The Story of Edgar Sawtelle were a dog, it would be the runt of the litter.



  1. I am so darned grateful for reviewers that tell it like it is. This is the second bleh review on Edgar Sawtelle I’ve read today. So glad I didn’t buy it because I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have liked it. But then again, I’ve been boycotting the Big O ever since she featured McCarthy’s The Road. I still don’t get that one, try as I might.

  2. I decided long ago I wouldn’t be reading this one, so I’m glad I’m not missing anything!


  3. A good reading friend of mine told me she just couldn’t finish this book, so I’ve avoided it. Thanks for the honest review.

  4. Ha, I love this review. The disgruntled tone amused me to no end! 🙂

  5. When I read it I hadn’t heard much about it, despite all the doprah hype. I hadn’t even read the comparisons to Hamlet… so I think I had a better chance at enjoying it.

  6. Even if it’s a book I’ve already read and liked, I’m actually disappointed when Oprah “discovers” it …

    However, props to you for giving your honest opinion. Even when it’s favorable, it’s not always easy.

  7. Ok, thank you! This will NOT be added to the Stalking Chartroose Challenge.

  8. Your review made me laugh out loud; I think the idea of what is “literary” and people wanting to be literary lets books that aren’t great get a lot of press. I had no intention of reading this one because I don’t really like animals, but now I’m glad I didn’t.

    I really liked Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres as a good book that uses Shakespeare… King Lear, if I remember correctly, which I might not be.

  9. Ah! You nailed that!
    “I think a lot of people want to seem more intelligent than they are (are you listening Oprah?), so they pretend to enjoy novels that are pegged as “literate” and “cerebral” ”

    SO TRUE.
    I’m so annoyed by that.
    Also, people who rush out to get the latest Oprah’s pick just because Oprah told them to.
    Seriously? I’m not saying all those books are bad, because some of them are awesomely awesome. But I work in a bookstore and so I am witness to the crazyness of people once a new ‘pick’ is announced.

    I want to read this book now though! But there’s no way I’m buying it at the price it now is. This is why I almost never read new books, too expensive!! And running the risk of it being craptastic?? Neverrrrrrrrrr lol

    thanks for the review!
    it made me laugh!

  10. I did not like it either. Thanks for your honesty, because there is nothing worse than a review by someone caught up in the “modern novel intelligentsia” praising something that really was just a piece of work!

  11. I just finished the novel. It was hard to finish. Several times it just got so bogged down with the dog info. I just finally would just skim though the parts ( by the way, I am a dog lover). The ending stunk. Comparing it to Shakespeare is just plain incorrect.
    That is the second Oprah book I have purchased and plan on donated as quickly as possible.

  12. I love reviews like this. Why people would pretend to like a book to seem more intelligent is beyond me. Are not incredibly intelligent people (like say, me) perfectly capable of loving the Aunt Dimity books and bored silly with Kafka? Besides, who cares what other people think of your books? People are such herd animals.

    Hey. Oprah gets some good books out there. If her list is all you’re reading, well, you’re missing out, but at least you’re reading. (OTOH, that woman has never met a depressing book she doesn’t love.)

  13. Oh no…I just bought this book and after reading your review, I’m thinking that I’ll have some less than stellar reactions to it as well :/ Hopefully I have a better experience with it!

  14. eeks…this is the first negative review I have read of this book. Sorry you didn’t like it. I used to like watching the Oprah show, But I am somehow not very interested in her book selections. I have seen the same book with different prices and covers places next to each other, one is more expensive just becuase it has the Oprah bookclub seal on it. seriously people.
    Thanks for the honest review…

  15. I liked your Dorothy Parker-esque final paragraph. LOL!

  16. How disappointing – I read some reviews of this book when it first came out and was really curious to read it. I will still try it, of course, to see what I think – since I think the premise sounds cool. Isn’t it frustrating when the whole industry jumps on the bandwagon?

  17. Thanks for your responses, everyone!

    Michele–”The Road” is another novel I’m not particularly fond of. I remember starting to read it and getting all peeved about the bad grammar, especially the myriad numbers of incomplete sentences. And this book received the Pulitzer! Just another example of know-nothings jumping on the so-called “literate fiction” bandwagon.

    Lezlie and bermuda–Believe me, you aren’t missing a thing!

    Janicu–I tend to get rantish when I feel robbed!

    Jill–I wish they hadn’t done the Hamlet comparisons because I had such high hopes and they were dashed so completely.

    Bridget–I’m with you on the Oprah thing. It really bothers me because she’s not a lit scholar and is just told what to do by others. I wonder how many of her selections she really reads…

    Care–You’re welcome!

    Steph–I’m glad I don’t work in a bookstore, especially with my increasing attitude of curmudgeonliness. I’d tell those dumb customers to find their own damn books and get fired!

    Jessica and D.–It’s a relief I wasn’t the only one that didn’t like it. I’m a dog lover too, so it was a double disappointment.

    Carrie–LOL, your comment is great! Yes, incredibly intelligent people (like say, you) are probably more honest about their reading choices. I’d rather read practically anything than Kafka any day! Good God! If you look on my sidebar, you’ll notice that I’m reading a horror trilogy at the moment and I’m enjoying every minute of the experience! Pooh on those lit snobs!
    And yes, at least Doprah has promoted reading. That’s something, I guess.

    Chris–I’m anxious to read your review. You might see things that I was too dumb to figure out. Jill liked it, so maybe you will too.

    Violet–What a ripoff; charging more just because Oprah endorses it! Anything for a buck. Are you going to read it?

    bybee–I was trying for Hunter S. Thompson, I’ll have you know!

    verbivore–The premise IS cool, so it’s too bad it got so bogged down in trivialities. I would like to read your thoughts on it since I think you’re a more accomplished analyzer/synthesizer than I am.

  18. I’ve heard good and bad things about this one… it didn’t pull me in enough to pick it up before it was an Oprah rec, and I still can’t decide if it’s worth my time. I guess the good thing about Oprah books is that in a year or two there will be so many used copies floating around that it’ll be easy to get my hands on one of them.

  19. I am so happy about this review! If Oprah suggests a book, I’m more likely NOT to read it. With this case especially, that’s apparently the right decision. And fyrefly is right about the used copies. Think of how many thousands of people are going to buy this, not finish (or even start) it, and sell it. If I was ever wrong not to read a book Oprah suggests, I can easily pick it up after other suckers, er… readers have acted as my guinea pigs.

  20. I’ve been avoiding this review because I was SURE it had a big, giant spoiler in it (not sure why), and I wanted to finish my copy first. LOL. I had almost the exact opposite response of you! I really liked the book, and I think my least favorite parts were the boy-and-dogs-alone parts.

    I didn’t realize this was supposed to be all “literate” and “cerebral.” I just liked reading about the dogs and stuff. I think it might have helped that I read it on my Kindle too-I kept thinking, Wow, this is a pretty short read. I was shocked when I saw a review recently that mentioned the 500+ pages! I had seen the book in stores, but it just didn’t register because I wasn’t hefting it around all the time.

  21. It’s nice to see someone thoughtfully disappointed with this book. Up to now, the only thumbs-downs I’d encountered for Sawtelle were from distraught followers of The Oprah. “Gawd, why’s she got to pick all the depressing ones?!”

    Gotta say, though — my experience with this book was completely different from yours.

    I came away from it feeling it definitely deserved its hype. It was poignant without being syrupy (and when you’ve got a story of A Mute Boy and His Dogs, that’s pretty impressive). Wroblewski’s prose was lyrically beautiful without being overblown or pretentious. I could go on, but I’ll just say the book simply came alive for me.

    I’ll agree, it’s a shame when people pick up a lousy book merely because of a certain celebrity’s recommendation. But I also hate to see people avoid a great one for the same reason.

  22. Thank you! I hated the book by the end, and wanted to throw it across the room. You are so right about there being a lot of literary prowess, and a ton of words. The book can be dissected into small chunks, but that ending was the worst I’ve read. No more Oprah books for me. I am a dog lover and have trained all my dogs.

  23. Thank god I’m not the only person who hated this book. My boyfriend’s mother asked me to read it, so I did it out of duty, but it has been painful. (I think she may have liked the book, I don’t think she was trying to torture me by forcing me to read crap–but that is how it feels.) The book is boring, far too long, and pretentious. I didn’t know anyone thought it was “literate” or “cerebral.” I find that fact shocking. Anyone who found this book “literate” and/or “cerebral” needs to read more books.

  24. My book club just met to discuss this book. We gave it 4.5 thumbs down out of 5. I completely agree with the review,although there are several- aspects of the novel it failed to slam. There was too much ambiguity, too many threads left untied. The ending scene in the yard was ludicrous. The book was overwritten, although the language and imagery were at times brilliant. If, given the reviews, readers are left with feelings of inferiority because they were not erudite enough to grasp and appreciate, this review should boost their self esteem. The editor was obviously a dog trainer in a previous life and a frustrated ghost hunter in this one.

  25. I’m one of the readers who has to finish a book no matter what. I have to say, the book had been left at doc’s office, traveled, lost again and a year later reappeared. Felt it was a sign! Needed to finish it. I finally reached the gripping end last night. I was disappointed. Too much left unturned.

  26. Pertaining to those who are less literate than they might imagine, including many of the above reviewers, haven’t you ever read a book that was entertaining, interesting, and made you cry in more than one place in the book regardless of whether you were a male or female? Look at the title. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Catch a clue. This isn’t some mystery to be torn apart, dissected, and then discarded. I’m sorry for the people who took one person’s ‘opinion’, didn’t read the book, and missed one of the most emotional, tragic, and heart rending stories to come along in a while. Now don’t you feel more ‘enlightened’ by the critic? At last you know the truth.

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