The title for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is not just uninformative, but outright misleading. The star of the book isn’t Edgar, but his dogs. Edgar is a mute who, with his parents Gar and Trudy, breeds the legendary Sawtelle dogs. The dogs aren’t much to look at, but that’s because the family’s focus has always been on intelligence, empathy, and loyalty.
The book’s first 150 pages contain some truly glorious writing about these dogs — we see them whelped and trained; we see Edgar playing with them and communing in a fashion despite having no voice; we even see a few wonderful chapters from the point of view of Almondine, Edgar’s faithful hound. If you like dogs, or if you like good writing (or, if you’re like me and love both), the first quarter of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is just about perfect.
What happens then is a sudden tragedy (which the dust jacket inexplicably spoils — whoever wrote that copy should be fired), after which the book devolves from a warm, generous, even luminous account of Midwestern life, into a melodrama modeled on (spoiler alert) Hamlet. What rang false to me about this turn was the near total lack of foundation for the monstrous event and the frustration I felt when Edgar, with hardly any evidence, becomes a fanatic for one explanation of the tragedy.
This melodramatic turn, and the wrenching effect it has on the characters, spoiled the rest of the book for me — with the exception of a lovely interlude when Edgar and his dogs briefly find shelter with a kind-hearted loner. I won’t deny that the writing maintains its poetry throughout, and the book’s ever more absurd machinations aren’t completely uninteresting. But the opening of the novel presents something unique and true that curdles when the story starts being forced through the wringer of a Shakespearean tragedy.