Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (2015)

Though I haven’t posted a review in um…9 months, I have been reading.  I just haven’t found time to reaettaandottod AND write about it. I’ll start with my most recent book, and then I’ll pick and choose a few others.  I think the days of blogging about every book are probably over.

This is a book with good writing and a unique premise. Etta, at 83, decides to walk over 2000 miles to the ocean because she has never seen it. From her small farm in Saskatchewan, she heads for Halifax along with her companion James, the coyote that tags along with her and talks to her. Otto is her endearing husband who lets her go because he knows how important this is to her. Russell is their neighbor, a lifelong friend of Otto, a man whom Etta once dated, and a man who has been in love with her his whole life. Unlike Otto, Russell insists on going after Etta, but once he finds her, he lets her continue her quest for the sea. Throughout Etta’s journey we get the stories of her past and the stories of Otto’s past: Otto’s been through WWII, Etta was a teacher in a prairie town, and Russell avoided the war because of a childhood injury, but also because war was never his ambition. Unlike so many other boys who yearned for adventure and heroism, Russell was content to learn and farm and live a simple but meaningful life.

The story shifts back and forth between Etta’s journey (in which we relive her memories) and Otto who is at home passing the time by cooking and creating paper mache animals that fill their yard. But at some point, their characters seem to mesh into one. In fact, the last third of the story left me saying huh? a few too many times. Things that didn’t make sense to me (spoiler alert here): Russell is hell bent on finding Etta, but when he finally does, he wanders north to see the caribou instead of staying with her. A reporter shows up and journeys with Etta for several days/weeks, but then essentially drops out of the story. Etta ends up in a nursing home of some sort, but while there, her character morphs into Otto such that they’re almost one in the same–are they? James, the coyote, also drops out of the story without enough explanation or concern from Etta. Finally, the ending isn’t clear. Does Etta die? Is she with Otto? In spirit or in reality or is he dead, too?

An ending doesn’t need to be neat and tidy, but it should offer something more than utter confusion. And I’m okay with sliding in and out of reality, but Hooper just wasn’t consistent. It felt like the first two thirds of the book were well executed and the last third was tossed together as ideas popped into her head. For a writer of this caliber—someone who can use language so beautifully and fluidly and someone who can come up with compelling characters and a fresh story—it felt sloppy. In an interview, Hooper says, “ Writing this book was very… sporadic. I’ve got three other jobs, as a freelance musician, an academic at Bath Spa University and a violin teacher…I don’t make outlines, I prefer to start each writing session having no idea what’s going to happen next… keeps things interesting for me, and I think the spontaneity allows for a more vibrant, living story.”

I’m not sure her approach works as well as it could, but overall, I still really liked this book.

One comment

  1. I felt as if the ending was showing that Etta was hallucinating. That in her old age with Dementia/Alzeimers, Otto never came home from the war. I believe she never really travelled, but had been living in a home for years. Otto died in the war, like they said he went under the water. Etta just wanted to go to the water to feel like Otto was with her, even though he had never returned home. And the last chapter ends with her waiting for the train and it whizzed passed. It only stopped when people were getting off, and nobody was.


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