Lions, Tigers and Bears

What a strange few days it’s been. A lengthy, though surprisingly pleasant, drive to Pittsburgh over the weekend has me fully comprehending the intensity of my road trip next spring, and I’m $300 in the hole after the belated discovery that I’d misplaced my keys somewhere in central Pennsylvania. (On the upside, the locksmith said the front door to my apartment had the most poorly cut deadbolt hole he’d ever seen. So there you go—another victory of inconvenience for Bushwick. )

I was of course also saddened to hear about Nora Ephron’s death (I had somewhat presciently called her last book a goodbye book) and even though I don’t subscribe to the the whole afterlife thing, I hope she’s at some airy café in the sky, drinking black coffee and annoying waiters alongside an equally grumpy Ray Bradbury. I hope they have a nice long chat about having gotten the hell out of Dodge before someone forced them to join Twitter.

Still, amid all the goings-on this week, I did manage to finish Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I’ve been meaning to read since it was named to the New York Times’ Best Books of 2011 list last year (leaving Swamplandia! and Ten Thousand Saints as the two fiction titles on the list that I have yet to read.) Set in an intentionally unidentifiable Balkan country, the novel follows Natalia, a “young doctor who tries to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with ‘the deathless man.’ But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife.” (I was too lazy to summarize the plot any more efficiently than it was outlined on the back of the book.) 

My first thought in reading this book was: I hate Téa Obreht. Not because of the novel, which is good, but because it was her first, and she’s 26, and it did astoundingly well. I suppose this is something I should start getting used to with age—the overwhelming and mildly depressing literary successes of my contemporaries—but I reserve the right to bitch and moan in envy f0r at least a few more years. It’s not even that I have the resolve to write my own book, and find myself felled by the machinations of an insular publishing world. Rather, this girl spends her evenings writing elegant mythical novels about animals and war, and I get anxious if I miss an episode of The Bad Girls Club. The most highbrow I’ve ever been is that time the threading lady shaped my eyebrows like the peaks of small mountains.

Anyway! The Tiger’s Wife is, above all else, elegant. It’s told in the first person, and Natalia is a likable, if somewhat enigmatic, narrator. Her grandfather, who we come to know through her memories of him and a few flashbacks to his telling her stories, is even more likable, the kind of stoic but compassionate grandfather whose lasting impact on his relatives is something belching, football-watching and slightly racist old American grandpas just don’t seem to warrant. The setting of the story is also beautiful, though geographic descriptions and references to territorial conflict are intentionally vague (Obreht says in an interview at the back of the book that she didn’t want to encourage preconceptions by using real locations or names.)

The Tiger’s Wife doesn’t have a great deal of forward momentum. Natalia’s search for answers about her grandfather’s death is the “plot” of the novel, and over time she pursues those answers in a manner that allows for some measure of story progression, but the real meat of the book is Natalia’s reflections: on political conflict and its effect on national identity; on familial relationships and how they change with age. In turn, the goal of The Tiger’s Wife doesn’t seem to be closure—there is no convenient revelation to tie up all the loose ends—but that’s okay, because one doesn’t have to draw conclusions about life’s great mysteries to explore them.

As in many English classes of my past, there were times when I wondered whether I might be missing something in The Tiger’s Wife, some great allegory conveyed in subtleties through the various myths and memories Natalia shares. Said ignorance—or suspicion of it—did on occasion make me feel that the book was over-hyped, that I was expecting to gain some great insight on life that ultimately didn’t come. But that may be my fault as much as the author’s, and even without any profound realizations, the Tiger’s Wife is at the very least a beautiful and enjoyable read. Certainly a more admirable way to spend one’s time than catching up on Bad Girls Club.

TITLE: The Tiger’s Wife
AUTHOR:  Téa Obreht
PAGES: 338 (in paperback)
SORTA LIKE: The Historian meets Life of Pi
FIRST LINE: “In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.”

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