One of my husband’s favorite pastimes is wandering through bookstore stacks (or library stacks – he isn’t picky) and adding to the enormous running list of books he needs to read. Sometimes he buys a book right then and there; other times he waits a few days to order online. But he buys multiple books a month. (It’s one of the [many] reasons I love him.)
If I’m with him – and I will state right here for the record that while I LOVE to read and I ADORE buying new books, I HATE browsing through bookstores/libraries – he’ll inevitably hand me a book and direct me to read the back cover.
I don’t like reading the back cover. More often than not, the person who read the copy seems to not have read the book at all. (I just finished a book where the cover copy MISSPELLED the name of a character in the book.) (Deep breaths. We will all get through this.) But even if the person who wrote the cover copy DID read the book, even LOVED the book, well, it’s just too small a space to always convey a book’s awesomeness.
Of course, there is always the misleading cover copy, the kind that tricks you into believing a book will be crazy good… when it is NOT GOOD AT ALL. (Cough cough, Voluntary Madness, My Sister’s Keeper, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter cough.)
That was a long-winded way of telling you that I don’t put much stock in cover copy. If a book woos me with a beautiful title (which is how I judge a book, while my husband literally picks up books based on their covers), I will read a page or two. Sometimes I will flip to a random page and read a few paragraphs. If I’m not won over by these methods, I’m not buying.
Gah, that’s scary. As someone who would like to WRITE and PUBLISH a novel someday, it is pretty terrifying that a reader takes so little time to discard a book from her list of possibilities.
Anyway, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was one of the books my husband pulled off the shelf at some point last year. First point against it: It’s got one of those “The [Something] Wife” titles that are far too popular these days. Second point against it: The cover copy was kind of boring. Third point against it: The cover is a mainly black field, topped by the bottom half of a slinking tiger. As in, nothing to write home about.
I did the old flip-open-and-read-a-passage-at-random thing, but I handed it back to my husband. Not for me.
But after it started appearing on all sorts of “Best of 2011” lists… When it made the list of finalists for the National Book Award… And won the Orange Prize… My husband decided I should read it.
So he bought it for me for Christmas.
And I had to read it. For one thing, my dear beloved husband had purchased it for me as a gift. So I had to at least TRY it. For another, I’d managed to fly all the way to Florida for a WEEK without a SINGLE BOOK in my possession.
This is the book I want to write.
There. Is that enough to make you buy it?
Because I can’t give it higher praise.
Now, I’m not saying it’s the best book I’ve read EVER. (In fact, I’d give the same high praise to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. And The History of Love. And The Time Traveler’s Wife. Everything Is Illuminated. Lolita. Song of Solomon. Love in the Time of Cholera.)
But it’s up there.
This story is about Natalia, who is either a med student or a resident or a fairly-new physician, I didn’t pay attention to the details. She and a friend/fellow doctor are journeying across the border to inoculate some orphans who are living at a monastery.
The book is only slightly about that journey. It’s more about other types of journeying. Primarily the journeys that Natalia and her grandfather make in search of answers.
Natalia has a very close bond with her grandfather, and the book is, in part, about their relationship. Like any love, theirs is not a straight line. It has hooks and crags and peaks and valleys.
The book is also about love, in a global sense. Love between parent and child, grandfather and granddaughter. Love between spouses. Love from afar. Love of ritual. Love of countrymen. Love of humanity.
And, perhaps even more so, this book is about the opposite of love: pain.
The pain of love, unrequited and realized. The pain of disrespect. The pain of abuse. The pain of escape. The pain of life. The pain of fear. The pain of knowledge. The pain of uncertainty. The pain of an ending. The pain of war. The pain of peace. The pain of loss. The pain of discovery.
It’s also about mythology, and the role it plays in our lives and behavior and thought-processes. In fact, the bleak reality of the book – which takes place in an unnamed war-torn area of Eastern Europe – is off-set by legend and superstition, both of which are so important a part of the characters’ lives that they become real in their own way: A man becomes a bear. A tiger becomes a husband. Death becomes a human being.
But these wild, fantastical elements are not absurd in the way of much magical realism, nor do they seem out of place or artificial. They are woven so tightly into the fabric of the book’s world that they are almost indistinguishable from fact.
It’s about all of these things and about that single thing we all have in common: death.
So much in this world is horrible. There’s heartbreak and war and murder and indifference and illness and cruelty. And all the struggling just leads us closer to the day when Death will reach out his hand and guide us into his home.
But there’s beauty, too. In the most unexpected places: the brush of tiger fur against skin; a childhood book tucked inside your pocket; boot-legged music played on a car stereo.
And there’s love. Complicated, inexplicable, tangled-up love.
This is the story I want to write.
Should you read it? You know, I recognize that every person reading this post right now has her own idea of what The Perfect Book is. Maybe you won’t think this book is perfect. Maybe you won’t like it one bit. If you don’t, I promise I won’t love you any less.
But oh, Internet.
The prose is lovely, vivid. This is the kind of story told to children in hushed voices as they’re drifting off to sleep. The kind of tale that comes alive in the brain, as real as if you were watching it happen in person.
And it was satisfying in the way only a great book can be. For instance, the plot is twisty and full of mysteries. But there ARE answers. Some, at least. Or at least semi-answers that are complete enough that you can fill in the rest for yourself.
The themes are universal, which means – I think – you will relate to the main characters and their journeys. But even though this is a love story, a death story, a story of loss like so many, many stories are and have been and will be, it plays out in a truly fresh, interesting way.
Will this help persuade you? I got to the end and I wanted to start right over and read it through again. I read every word in the book, from the author bio to the reader questions to the (overall dull, although at times very interesting) conversation between Obreht and Jennifer Egan of Goon Squad fame. I recommended it to my book club – just so I could talk about it with someone, anyone! And I have been thinking about it non-stop since reading the first chapter on Christmas Day.
Now, the book isn’t perfect. I have unanswered questions. I see loose threads wafting in the breeze made by the cover falling shut. Perhaps Obreht intended them to float there, unfinished. Perhaps she couldn’t find a way to do so without tying too neat a bow on the whole thing. Perhaps she recognized that loose ends are part of life. In any event, I wasn’t frustrated by the loose ends. I didn’t feel let down, the way I did after reading, say, Life of Pi. I felt glad to have read it. And certain that I would read it again.
It’s a great book, Internet. Beautifully written, beautifully told.
Give it a try, won’t you?
Anybody else read this book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Warning: May contain spoilers.