The Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. And, at least in terms of book and movie plots, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the similarities between stories and themes that appear time and time again. Sometimes though it’s not just themes that are revisited but occasionally you might have the realization that perhaps with some tweaks that you’ve actually heard this story before. That happened a couple of times to me in recent reads.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is a book that had been hovering around in my “to-read” list since its publication in 2008, but had never quite made the push to the top. When we went to Cambria in January, I downloaded it. The story follows a mute youth (the title character), the son of a man that raises remarkable dogs in rural Wisconsin in the mid-20th century. When he’s a teen, Edgar’s father (also named Edgar) dies of what seems to be a sudden stroke, after which the father’s estranged and rivalrous brother Claude comes to stay and “help” his mother Trudy with the farm and dog-raising.
It’s about that time that my brain went, “Hey… wait a minute…father and son named the same thing, a traitorous and usurping uncle Claude scamming the widow Trudy…– crap, this is Hamlet!”
And indeed The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a retelling (I suppose Hollywood would call it “a re-imagining”) of Hamlet, but to label it as such is probably a disservice. Young Edgar’s story encompasses his coming-of-age, his nearly magical relationship with his dog Almondine (who is probably my favorite character in the whole story), his frustrations of being unable to understand his father’s death, and his inability to understand his mother’s “betrayal” when she cottons to the traitorous Claude. As in Hamlet, the prince must go away and then formulate his return and revenge. The story isn’t a perfect parallel for Shakespeare’s play, but let’s just say there’s a substantial body count here, too, by the end.
This is a wonderful book. Wroblewski’s plain but powerful writing easily transports the reader to a bucolic time that probably never existed and clearly conjures the characters, especially Edgar, Almondine and Claude. It blends the raw emotion of family drama, the disorienting emotions of growing up, and the almost supernatural bond between a boy and his dog into an incredibly satisfying story.
Four stars out of five.
As a scientist, I usually bristle at the way we are portrayed in literature and on the screen. Too often we’re seen as single-minded and antisocial. Incapable of subtlety. So, I was surprised to see the protagonist of the novel State of Wonder by Ann Patchett be a 40-something scientist, working as a pharmacologist for a pharmaceutical company, who investigates the death of a colleague who had been sent to South America to check the status of a research expedition in reproductive biology. Hey, wait a minute — I thought — I’m a 40-something scientist that’s a pharmacologist who has worked in reproductive biology for most of the last decade. Sweet.
In the novel, Marina Singh is sent from Minnesota by her CEO (and on-the-sly lover) to investigate the death of her friend and colleague Anders Eckmann and to ascertain the status of a reproductive biology research project led by a brilliant but reclusive scientist Annik Swenson, a fearsome woman that was once med school Marina’s mentor. To reach Swenson’s compound among an isolated Amazonian tribe, she must make the disorienting trip from the suburban Midwest to urban Brazil and then travel days upriver into unknown and dangerous territory. It doesn’t take a genius (medical, pharmaceutical, or otherwise) to know we were entering Heart of Darkness re-imagining territory here.
State of Wonder is not, in the end, about Marina’s physical journey, though Patchett makes the jungle, with its insects, reptiles, and plants palpably menacing. The novel really hinges more how the characters approach the moral/ethical dilemmas presented in the story: how can we use (but not abuse) the natural world for our own good? Is there anyway to interact with indigenous people without destroying their cultures? What is an acceptable cost (in dollars and lives) of “progress”? And as scientists, are there places that we shouldn’t go — are there discoveries that shouldn’t be described to the public– maybe for its own good?
Overall though, it is the tension of the Marina-Swenson “Marlow-Kurtz” relationship that powers this story, as Marina must learn to confront the spectre of her own early failures and Swenson’s iron sense or righteousness. Ultimately Marina is forced into choices: about her life and those of others — sometimes heartbreaking choices — in a surprisingly tense and unexpected climax for a book that is often cerebral.
Four stars out of five
What about you? Have you read any books recently that are derivations or adaptations of others? Do you think this “re-imagining” is a good idea? Before reading these books, I might have said such books would be too “gimmicky”, but I really enjoyed both of these and has me reconsidering my earlier assumptions.