Monday, May 9, 2011

The Tiger's Wife: Atmospheric, But Edgeless

"We're all entitled to our superstitions," a Franciscan monk explains to Natalia, a young doctor who is trying to understand the seemingly bizarre burial ritual of some Balkan villagers late in Tea Obreht's debut novel The Tiger's Wife. Later, Obreht drives home that notion of the intersection of superstition and fact, of the overlap of legend, history and memories: "He learned too that when confounded by the extremes of life — whether good or bad — people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.” But unfortunately, this novel as a whole has a stitched-together feel as Obreht crosses back and forth between past and present, between legend and real-time story. And while the idea of the gray area between legend and reality is interesting, the story itself isn't.

Let's take a look: The story takes place in an unnamed country soon after the conclusion of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Natalia has traveled to a remote Balkan village to bring medicine to an orphanage. On the way, she learns that her grandfather, with whom she was very close, has died. Mysteriously, he had wandered off to a village Natalia has never heard of, leaving no explanation for his wife, daughter, or granddaughter.

Natalia, who narrates the story, reminisces about the two stories, or legends, her grandfather had told her as she's grown up, which, by remembering (and telling readers), she hopes might provide clues to the circumstances surrounding her grandfather's death. One is about a tiger that escaped from a zoo and lurked near the village in which her grandfather grew up during Wold War II. Another is about a deathless man her grandfather, who is also a doctor, has encountered three different times at various stages in his life.

As these legends unfold, the questions for the reader become: How real is either? Could these two seemingly unrelated legends really provide clues to why Natalia's rational grandfather would've done something so irrational and inexplicable as go off to die without telling anyone where or why?

Obreht skips back and forth between the present and these two legends, building on each by introducing new characters and circumstances. Obreht writes beautifully, with drama, atmosphere and extraordinary sharpness. Her spot as the youngest of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 is well deserved.

But the problem with this novel for me is that as clear and sharp as her prose is, the story itself is just as dull. The three strains of story never really live up to the original intrigue of the mystery behind Natalia's grandfather's death. As Obreht continues to build upon the legends, the initial immediacy of the mystery is lost. In addition, the individual strains of story have no real edge to them; for lack of a better word, the novel is just a bit bland. While lovely, Obreht's colorful prose tends to bleach the stories themselves because the mood is so dreamlike and surreal — an effect of the fact that we're always wondering the degree to which grandfather's stories are real personal history, allegories or just cute superstition-infused legends.

Obreht is an unequivocally talented writer, and no doubt other readers will get along with this novel better than I did. But this novel just didn't land for me. It reminded me a little of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, a Booker-prize winning novel that many people loved, but of which I also wasn't a huge fan.


  1. I was happy to see you were reading this book since your reviews are so sharp. I was really anticipating this novel, and I haven't read it yet. The reason I haven't read it is because the story doesn't sound that interesting to me, even though I have no doubt about the quality of the prose. I'm still kind of hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

  2. I agree with you. I thought the writing was good, but the plot was dull and it failed to grab me. I actually abandoned this book half way though. I know a lot of people will love the meandering, fairytale nature of this book, but it did nothing for me.

  3. Thanks for writing this review, Greg. I agree wholeheartedly and so you've saved me a job. I'll supplement the rather perfunctory comments I made yesterday with a link to this!

  4. Excellent review Greg. For me prose & store often mix and I can forgive one if the other is outstanding.

    Doesn't happen too often though.

  5. I trust your level-headed approach to some of these books that get all the hype. And I was suspicious of this one. Positively glowing reviews in the major publications, but when it got down to us, the real readers who have no agendas, it seemed to lose traction. Great review, as always, and I thank you for doing all the heavy lifting for me.

  6. I hadn't planned on reading this anytime soon, but now I probably won't read it ever. Your review reminded me of what I thought about Ann Patchett's Bel Canto: beautiful writing but boring story.

  7. Is it bad that I don't want to read books with the word "Tiger" in the titles anymore? I know judging a book by its title is basically on par with judging a book by its cover but, I don't care, I just can't do it anymore, I can't, unless the title is something nuts like "Tiger Robot Hot Girls Save The Galaxy from the Zombie Taliban" and then maybe...

    Thanks for the smart, sharp, even-handed review, always look forward to the latest issue of New Dork Reviews :)

  8. @LBC - I had the same hesitation about the story not sounding interesting before picking it up - but all Obreht's accolades convinced me to try it anyway. D'oh! Can't wait to see what's next from her, though, because I love the way she writes. (And thanks for the kind words.)

    @farmlanebooks - I was tempted to quit too, but I have this OCD need to finish every book I start. I think you're right, Obreht's type of storytelling and the story itself will definitely appeal to a certain segment of readers. Just not me!

    @lizzysiddal - Thanks in advance for the linkage. Got a question for you about the ending - I'll email you directly.

    @Man - Yeah, I hear you - if the story is marginally interesting, but the prose is outstanding, I'm usually okay. Here, the prose was outstanding, but the story itself was really dull.

    @Sandy - Thanks for kind words. I wish I had better news to report about this one. ;)

    @Brenna - I've heard that about Patchett. And now you've saved me from Bel Canto - which I'd also planned to read, but not anytime soon.

    @BooksaremyBFs - ...and strangely, there seems to be a glut of Tiger-titled books lately. I'm guessing Tiger Woods' autobiography is out, too? Thanks for reading!

  9. Great review and comments. Like Sandy, I have felt the same way about so many books that have received the critics' big push and hype that it makes me immediately suspect when they receive it. I don't like being suspect. Not my style! One that beat the odds for me was Matterhorn. Both high-quality writing and a compelling, though shifting and surging story.

    PS: I was hoping to see your newest post back up. Blogger really bungled things for bloggers this week.

  10. I had been reading so much about this book that I was tempted to try it but after reading your review, I think not. I love beautiful writing as much as the next person, but I want an engaging story as well, and from your remarks that's not the case here.

  11. Do not let the crazy sounding plot keep you away from this treat of a first novel! This is one which will stick with you and doubtless leave you waiting eagerly, along with the legion of fans that Téa Obreht is building, for her next offering.