The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

I sometimes joke, with just a kernel of truth, that the secret to happiness is low expectations.  And perhaps it’s the same with books.  I had heard so much buzz about Tea Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, I was excited to crack it open and ready to devour it.  The NY Times raved; click here to read that review.  The Christian Science Monitor positively gushed; click here to read that review.  Even Book Pages, which I picked up at my local library, led me to believe that I had, absolutely had to read this book.

So I did.  And I must say, I was slightly disappointed.  Perhaps it was just my “reading mood”–I really felt like curling up with a long, atmospheric narrative into which I could escape for awhile.  Instead, I found myself laboring to comprehend a novel that is structured like a set of Russian dolls, or as Kapka Kassabova calls it in her review in the Guardian (click here for review), a “matryoshka-style narrative.”

I read Kassabova’s review after I finished The Tiger’s Wife; I was looking for some explication of its many references.  I wish I had read the review before however, as it did shed some light on the novel for me.

Quick plot review:  Natalia is narrating the story.  She is in an unnamed Balkan country that has recently emerged from the ravages of civil war.  Considering that the author was born in Belgrade, I just assumed the setting is, or could be, the former Yugoslavia.  Natalia is a doctor who has crossed the new border into what was once her own country, but is now former enemy territory, to bring vaccines to a mainly suspicious and resistant audience.  An arduous physical journey, this is also quite an emotional trip for Natalia because she has just found out that her beloved grandfather has died.

So that’s the frame of the book.  But now it’s the reader’s turn to travel as Natalia takes us on many journeys by way of stories that her grandfather has told her, the two main tales being about a tiger that is, or is not, a lot like Shere Khan from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and a deathless man.  There are many other characters, and other tales also; at times I felt like I was reading short stories, but I knew that (I hoped that?) they would all come together in the end.

I think they did, but not as convincingly as I was hoping they would.  By the time I closed the book, I was just glad to be done with it.  Oh, that sounds harsh, and don’t get me wrong; this is a very good book in many ways.  Obreht’s writing is seriously impressive, and she does know how to tell a story, building suspense along the way.  However, at times I felt like I had entered a maze of fabulous tales reminiscent of…what?

I don’t know what.

And perhaps that was part of my problem.  I felt like I was missing a lot by not understanding what I assumed were many references–cultural, folkloric, religious, and otherwise.  So I stumbled around the maze and emerged dazed, and ultimately a little disappointed.

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

This was my first introduction to Cynthia Ozick. I read two reviews of Foreign Bodies; both said it was a clever re-working of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, and both assured me that one could read, understand, and enjoy the former without having read the latter.

So, I read and enjoyed Foreign Bodies in a couple of days. Did I understand it? Hmm…I think so. Although I must admit, I feel like I’m missing… something.

Quick plot summary: It’s 1952 and Marvin Nachtigall has asked his sister Bea to interrupt her European vacation in order to locate Marvin’s wayward son Julian and make him return to his studies in America and the life Marvin feels he should lead.

Bea does as she is asked, sort of. Resenting her horrid brother’s presumptive attitude (and he really is horrid), she does locate Julian, now living in Paris with his older and traumatized wife, a Romanian refugee, but she makes little effort to repatriate him. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands.

Bea, who has been virtually absent from her brother’s adult life and the lives of his children, now interacts not only with Julian, but also with Julian’s narcissistic sister Iris and their mother Margaret, who has been shunted off for a stay at an asylum. (Evidently she can’t take the strain of missing her son for so long, but the reader understands that she must really want to escape her horrid husband.) Bea also interacts, not only through memories but also in reality, with her former husband, Leo, another semi-horrid person.

Interacting is big for Bea, because she hasn’t done much of it (that the reader can see) up until now. A life passing one by, or living the life that others have chosen for you, or being an observer of the lives of others–are all themes running through this novel, and Bea falls into all three categories. Until now. Now Bea asserts herself, and the consequences are…startling.

I liked this book, or I should say I liked Ozick’s writing. It’s sparkling. And inventive. And captivating. It kind of dazzles. However, I can’t help feeling that I came away from the book with an appreciation of the surface of the story, but not the depths. As horrid as many of the characters were, I wanted to know more about them, and maybe in not such a clever way as Ozick delivers them.

Somehow I feel (and I could be wrong) that if I read The Ambassadors, I just might gain greater access to Foreign Bodies. Or perhaps I should have the members of my Literary Masters book groups read it, and together we can “dig deep” into it and see just what kind of literary gem we have unearthed.

What about you? Have you read Foreign Bodies? What do you think about it?