19 January 2015

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

I read this book months ago, and therefore my memory will skew this review to the fuzzy side of the spectrum.  But it was very charming and I wanted to share my thoughts about it. In fact, my distance from reading this novel may, in fact, make my review gentler than it otherwise would have been.

Emma Hooper is a Canadian writer living in England, so one of the first things I noticed about this book was the subtle shift in sensibility.  I read largely American writers, and while there's no such thing as a single American sensibility when it comes to fiction writing, Emma and Otto and Russell and James doesn't feel American. The second thing I noticed about this book is that all of the major [human] players are octogenarians.  Since I've long held that age is the final frontier in fiction, this book earns a spot on my diversify-your-life shelf.  (Seriously, name the last book you might have read where most of the characters were over 75. There aren't that many.  I bet you can name many more books where the characters are non-white or GLBT, which are the two more common earmarks for diversity.)

Anyway, Etta and Otto and Russell are three closely knit old friends.  Quick backstory: Otto and Russell have been best friends, raised almost as siblings, since they were small boys in a backwater farming community in Saskatchewan.  Back before WWII, Etta was their teacher, not much older than her oldest students.  Otto went to war, but Russell, having suffered from a tractor accident in his youth, did not.  Otto fell in love with Etta via the letters they wrote back & forth while he was away, while Russell fell in love with Etta when they were the only two young people left behind.  This does not mean, however, that we have a love triangle à la dystopian YA novels.  No, indeedy. Otto comes home from the war and marries Etta, Russell buys the farm adjacent to Otto's, and they are lifelong companions

The present story: Etta is 82 and ever so slowly sinking into dementia.  One morning, Otto wakes up to find that Etta has left him a note, saying that she wants to see the ocean.  Not to worry, she'll walk there so he can keep the truck, and she'll try to remember to come back.


You want to know the strangest thing about this book?  That Otto just lets her leave. I confess that this was a disbelief quite difficult for me to suspend.  I don't know about you, but I'd never be able to let my much-beloved lifelong companion with dementia wander off on her own, on foot, for thousands of miles, to try to find the ocean. This story is otherwise rooted very much in reality, but there are flights of allegory and fanciful moments that the reader must simply accept before being able to proceed.

The story begins with Etta's letter to Otto, then uses alternating chapters to tell Etta's and Otto's and Russell's stories, both in the past and in the present.  And as for the titular James?  Well, he's a coyote. A singing coyote who becomes Etta's friend and protector on her journey across the Canadian provinces to the Atlantic Ocean. ("James liked singing; he was always singing. Coyotes have voices a bit like oboes; they are not unpleasant. Etta would sing along with him sometimes, and sometimes she would just listen.  Mostly he sang cowboy songs.")

While Etta is on her pilgrimage to the sea, Russell strikes off to the Great North and Otto stays home, trying to re-create recipes that Etta left behind for him, writing letters to Etta that he will never send, and creating a yard full of papier mâché animals. Each one has a task at hand, each one feels driven to complete it, and like the vagaries of the human heart, the reader couldn't possibly determine which is the more real, the more correct, thing to do.

I confess that my biggest issue with the book, other than having to accept Otto's neglect when Etta leaves, was that while reading, I felt like I'd covered much of the same emotional territory (and a similar plot line) a few years ago when reading Rachel Joyce's wonderful novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. If I hadn't read Joyce's novel first, I have no doubt that I would be far more delighted with Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

That being said, there is much to recommend about this book.  There's a real sweetness and charm to this novel, a certain quirky awkwardness in the characters. The emotional arc of the story is very satisfying, even if I couldn't always suspend my disbelief.  Above all, Emma Hooper has written Etta's dementia and periods of lucidity with such tenderness and beauty that she absolutely broke my heart.

This is a quiet book, but a book that is well worth reading.  The prose style is serviceable and solid, and I think it would appeal to fans of those other, quiet books with similarly unwieldy titles: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise; and the aforementioned The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

This book has already been published in the UK and Canada and, I think, Turkey, but Simon and Schuster will publish it here in the US this week. Out of curiosity, which cover do you think is better? The image at the top is the cover on my Advance Reading Copy and the image at the bottom is the final  dust jacket cover.


  1. I have a hold on this one at the library. I agree with you about books with older protagonists. Why do we make so much of our film and books and art about and for people in such a narrow age range?

    1. Yeah, actresses have been bemoaning the fact for decades that there are so few great roles for women over the age of 50, much less over the age of 70, in films.

      I'm hope that will change in our lifetime. Writing is one of the few professions that people can do their entire lives without need of retiring. toni Morrison is publishing her next book in April at the age of 83. (though her characters in that book are very young!)

  2. You know, I hadn't thought of age as a diversity qualification, but you make a good point. The only books I can think of that even have older characters, usually just have one or two. Most of the characters are on the younger side.

    I prefer the top cover over the bottom one.

    1. I prefer the top cover, too, though I think the bottom one gives a better sense of the content.

      It's curious to me. Our world population is aging, and most people in most countries with reasonable health care can expect to reach their 80s. It would be nice if our literature reflected that. But even writers in their later years aren't necessarily writing about people their age.

  3. This book intrigues me. Not published here (UK) until the end of the month and I have read very mixed reviews in the literary supplements of our newspapers. We have a baffling cover of a coyote (I guess) with the names superimposed ?! I recently finished Elizabeth Is Missing which focuses on a dementia sufferer and I thought was beautifully written so I am "in the zone" (ugh - what a phrase) to read this. Have pre-ordered and looking forward to reading something a bit different.

    1. Sorry, Jan, I thought it had already been published there. Hope you enjoy it. It's very quiet, but it stayed with me in a way I wouldn't have expected. I had trouble suspending disbelief, and if I'd written this review immediately after reading it, the review would have been much less favorable...


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