I can’t remember when exactly I sat down with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and first began to read. I know it was bitterly cold outside, and very snowy, so it could have been anywhere between Christmas and April. I do know that, when I finally put the book down, months later, I felt a little melancholy, and a little lonely, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to pick up another book for several days. I missed Edgar, and I missed his dogs, and I missed the contemplative and unhurried way in which the moments of his story moved forward with each moment I found to take another look at it.
Sure, this novel has flaws. Seen as a whole in retrospect, I can understand why many people seem to hate the plot contrivances and the frustrations of not having key elements of the story resolved. There’s a lack of closure that seems inconsiderate to the reader, and I suspect that those who are most disappointed in Edgar’s story are the ones who held the highest expectations from the beginning paragraphs. I myself couldn’t quite resolve my conflicted emotions, and I wavered between giving the novel first four stars, then three, then again bumping it back up to four, and subsequently leaving it there even though I have misgivings about my generosity in the matter.
I will say this: parts of this book deserve four stars, no doubt about it. And parts of this book are so meditatively wonderful that I wish they would go on forever. But like all things, good or bad, those parts come to an end. Perhaps that is part of the appeal: to be torn between loving the book and wishing it were just a little bit…better. Ambivalence is a big part of life, after all.
Of course Edgar is the protagonist of the novel, and we grow to trust him and love him even in his darkest moments. But the real star of this novel, in my opinion, is undoubtedly the old soul of Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong canine companion. Almondine has a few brief chapters in which she tells her side of the story, and these stand out to me as the life blood of the entire 562 pages. I’ve never read anthropomorphic literature that was so stirring and, at the same time, so convincing of a creature’s very nature. Almondine’s voice is undoubtedly canine, and touching in a way that perhaps only a dog-lover can appreciate. All I can say is that I was charmed from the moment when Almondine meets Edgar for the first time as a newborn infant fresh from the hospital.
In honor of Almondine’s words (and David Wroblewski’s genius if belated decision to include her unique point of view), I will leave you with some of my very favorite quotes from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. If you ever have an endlessly snowy winter to get lost in a quiet and meandering tale, I would recommend you give it a look.
p.194, “Places, time, weather–all these drew him up inside of her. Rain, especially, falling past the double doors of the kennel, where he’d waited through so many storms, each drop throwing a dozen replicas into the air as it struck the waterlogged earth. And where the rising and falling water met, something like an expectation formed, a place where he might appear and pass in long strides, silent and gestureless. For she was not without her own selfish desires: to hold things motionless, to measure herself against them and find herself present, to know that she was alive precisely because he needn’t acknowledge her in casual passing; that utter constancy might prevail if she attended the world so carefully. And if not constancy, then only those changes she desired, not those that sapped her, undefined her.”
and Edgar’s thoughts:
p. 457, “Life was a swarm of accidents waiting in the treetops, descending upon any living thing that passed, ready to eat them alive. You swam in the river of chance and coincidence. You clung to the happiest accidents–the rest you let float by.”
And finally, again, the ever-delightful Almondine:
p. 461, “She slowed. The farm danced about her. The apples trees bickered with the wind, clasped limbs in union against it, blackbirds and sparrows and chickadees and owls rimming their crowns. The garden cried out its green infant odor, it’s melange the invention of deer or, now it seemed to her, the other way around. The barn swung her fat shadow across the yard, holding it gently by dark wrists and letting it turn, turn, stretch out in the evening upon the ground but never slip. Faster it all revolved around her when she closed her eyes. Clouds rumbled across heaven and she lay beneath, and in the passage of shadow and yellow sunlight, the house murmured secrets to the truck, the traveler, who listened for only so long before its devout empiricism forced it away in wide-eyed panic to test such ideas among its fellows. The maple tree held the wash up to the light in supplication and received (bright flames) yellow jackets each day, its only reply. The mailbox stood soldierly by the road, capturing a man and releasing him, again and again.”