[I received a copy of this book from its Canadian publisher Penguin Canada via Netgalley. This does not affect my opinion of the novel.]
I’ve been reviewing books on this blog for almost a year now and the review-writing process is always an interesting experience for me. Sometimes a book will grip me with its strong message; sometimes, it affects me so much emotionally that the review just flows effortlessly from my heart to the (web)page; and then there are books that are written so beautifully and with such loveable characters that you become enamored with everything embodied in the text. As we all know, love is an untangible thing that is sometimes hard to describe. Well, that’s how I felt when trying to write my review of Etta and Otto and Russell and James.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is like an onion. It has layers upon layers just waiting to be dissected and enjoyed. On a superficial level, the book is about an old woman, Etta, who decides to pack her bags and leave her husband Otto behind in Saskatchewan to go on a journey to see the water on the East coast of Canada (via foot, no less). But beneath that storyline is 82 years of history and experiences that drive Etta towards this dream. How are we affected when we leave home? How do we react when we are left? The act of leaving is often repeated throughout the novel, and while I found it interesting to see what the traveling characters get up to, I was equally transfixed by how the characters that stay home cope with the separation. (I also loved how these roles are reversed throughout the book.)
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is just as concerned with the characters’ histories as it is with their present journeys. This is something that really made me adore the novel as I am always fascinated by how our past affects our present. Plus, with the narrative hopping freely between past and present, readers are able to really logically and emotionally understand the characters’ motivations, rendering them more life-like and developed.
Hooper’s prose is written in such a tender and understated way that it makes the story feel like a dream. Mixed with some magical realism, this becomes even more apparent. Whether you’re looking for a story about a 3232-kilometer pilgrimage, a study of a group’s past and present, or simply want to fall in love with a book, Etta and Otto and Russell and James has something for everyone.
Verdict: An incredibly hard book to review but one that is easy to fall in love with. The standouts here are the beautiful interpersonal stories and beautiful prose. Honourable mention? The formatting of the last few chapters.
Read if: You want to find out how an 82 year-old woman could possibly walk from Saskatchewan to Halifax; you’re interested in personal histories, especially those that involve World War II, want to fall in love with a book with Canada as a backdrop.
Have you picked up Etta and Otto and Russel and James yet? Do you love reading stories that mix past with present as much as I do? What do you think is harder: leaving home, or being left behind?