TITLE: Etta & Otto & Russell & James
AUTHOR: Emma Hooper
GENRE: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Adult, Historical Fiction
RATING: 3/5 Stars
Etta's greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water.
Meanwhile her husband Otto waits patiently at home, left only with his memories. Their neighbour Russell remembers too, but differently - and he still loves Etta as much as he did more than fifty years ago, before she married Otto.
What I Liked:
- I think my favourite thing about this book would have to be the characters. There are a few of them, and despite the title only naming four, others were given just as much attention. They were written so well and Hooper did a fantastic job of making them all feel very human, with distinctive personalities, yet all hauntingly vulnerable. I loved watching these strong young men and women grow into more careful and sensitive elderly people, but still retaining a spark of their former selves.
- There were elements of Magical Realism in the book, but as it's not a favourite genre of mine, I'm glad it didn't take over the entire novel. Hooper dished out a few bizarre realities such as french-speaking fish skulls, dream sharing and talking coyotes but they felt integrated into the story-line rather than having no purpose. In small doses, Magical Realism can be enchanting and give a story a unique flavour (as was the case here). Even the idea of an 82 year old woman trekking thousands of miles to see the sea and her friend of the same age tracking with nothing but the marks left by her shoes is a ridiculous one in hindsight, and yet it somehow felt right here.
What I Disliked:
- The layout of this book is terribly confusing. Despite enjoying Hooper's writing, I found myself constantly befuddled by the lack of speech or quotation marks, nor POV breaks. Everything melded together into one long flow of writing. It felt intentional, but I found that it didn't work for me. Especially as she writes from the POV of three different characters in a number of different time periods. Perhaps it could have done with a little more detail in certain areas too, as I felt like there was a lot of ground that Hooper was trying to cover in such a small number of pages.
- The ending was my least favourite part of the book. Despite a strong start, I felt like the last few chapters were far too ambiguous and obscure to draw any kind of conclusion or get answers from regarding how their stories actually ended. It meant that despite forming an attachment to each character, I had no real clue of their fate and was left with a whole host of unanswered questions regarding their memories and lives.
In all honesty, part of the problem is probably me here. I had problems with this book because though I like clever stories, I am not a fan of ambiguous endings. And I don't like being purposely confused either. The book started off so well that I thought I would be able to get past some of the punctuation rule-breaking aspects of the book but it interfered far too much with my reading experience. The characters were beautifully rendered and I certainly did feel something while reading. I have to commend Hooper in her ability to make Magical Realism slightly more appealing to me by not being too heavy with it. Overall though, unanswered questions mean a mediocre score.