A modern retelling of a classic tale is generally enough to pique my interest and make me want to read the book. There have been some notable Shakespearean retreads in the form of A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Serena. I was eager to read all three of those, and disappointed by them too (the latter two went unfinished). So when this little treat popped up as a Kindle deal of the day, loudly trumpeting itself as a modern American retelling of Oedipus Rex, I bought it before even noticing who the author was.
And the author is the reason this book has gone ignored for almost a year. I HATED Snow Falling on Cedars. I found it to be a tedious boring cheat of a book. I braced myself for more of the same here and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
Guterson takes only the barest bones of the Oedipus story (abandoned baby grows up to kill his father and marry his own mother) as the basis for the novel. Ed’s mother is a British au pair, knocked up at the age of 15 by the philandering husband of her employer, she agrees to have the baby adopted, until she realises she can pretend to keep it and blackmail the father into monthly payments for the baby’s upkeep. She abandons Ed at an orphanage and so begins the inexorable march towards all their dooms.
In my first CBR review, I noted that sometimes, it isn’t where you go, it’s how you get there. Since everyone knows the final destination of Ed (and in case anyone doesn’t, his demise is revealed in the opening chapter), Guterson has a lot of fun fleshing out the lives of Ed, his birth and adoptive parents, and everyone who swirls in and out of the saga, which ends up spanning just over half a century. Much time is devoted to Ed’s upbringing and meteoric rise to success as the inventor of a pseudo Google. It’s alternated with his birth mother Diane’s ever so colourful life. They don’t reconnect until three quarters of the way through the book.
And so the reader might feel a little short changed that it’s at this point Guterson chooses to press the fast forward button. Acknowledging directly to the reader that it’s all a bit icky, their relationship is whipped through at a vast rate of knots, the merry go round only slows down when the Awful Truth begins to make itself known. Despite the fact we’ve all been 300 pages ahead of our hero, the unravelling of his life is still breathtaking to read. It’s a bit of a shame that the final few pages don’t match the gut punching wrench of those that immediately precede it, though. The ending is a bit of a fumble and frustratingly inconclusive, believe it or not. However, I’m going to go with Ed’s verbose and anagram addicted pilot who points out that “our destiny” rearranges to “it’s your end”.