[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?
12 thoughts on “Book Review | Etta and Otto and Russell and James By Emma Hooper”
That actually sounds like a good book. I saw it on NetGalley and wasn’t sure about it.
I wasn’t quite sure about it when reading its synopsis, but I’m glad I decided to give it a try! The writing is absolutely gorgeous and it’s so hard to not love the characters.
I have this book on hold at the library right now, and I can’t wait to read it. It sounds like it has so much in it that I love to read about. It is also reminding me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I loved for all the same reasons. I’m hoping that being set in Canada, this one will be even better.
I think it would be worse to be left at home. Another good book about the experience of being left behind is Above All Things by Tanis Rideout.
I find some books harder to review than others, as well. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with how much I liked them, though. I’m not sure what it is…
Ooh, so happy to hear that you have a copy on its way! I’d be interested to hear your take on the story. It did remind me of what I know about Harold Fry (I never read it but I have read Queenie’s side of the story). Thank you for the book recommendation; I agree that being left behind is way worse! In terms of reviewing, sometimes I think I just don’t have too much to say about a book. I don’t think it’s a necessarily bad thing, but it sure makes it hard to write reviews!
The fact that you say the book is like an onion makes me want to read it. It sounds like a feel-good book with lots of substance. (I think it would be harder to be left behind; you’d be missing all the newness.)
You nailed it – the characters are so loveable that you just want to root for them the whole time. And I agree, I think it’s harder to be left behind!
I had a Shrek flashback for a minute – an onion! Love it. I’ve been really curious about this one! I like that you found it hard to describe – sometimes those are the best ones!
Hahahahaha! I don’t even remember the Shrek/onion reference but it does make me want to re-watch the movie(s)… This is definitely one of those books that readers should just read and enjoy for themselves 😉
Great review! How the past affects their future makes the story of these characters sound so interesting. But I have to know — who is James?
Thank you! Hehe, James is a talking coyote that Etta comes across in her travels, but it’s up to debate whether James is real or just an illusion. 😉
I just reviewed this myself. I really love it when books flip between past and present, I think it makes you feel more connected to the characters.