three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
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A-Beatrice and Virgil.epsYann Martel is the author of Self (1996), The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (2004), and Life of Pi (4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002). An international best-selling phenomenon, Life of Pi was translated into 40 languages and awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2002.

The Story: Henry L'Hôte, a writer, skyrocketed to fame with the publication of his second novel. He is shocked, then, when publishers turn down his idea for a third project--an unorthodox interpretation of the Holocaust, packaged as a "flip book." Crushed, Henry gives up his writing, moves to an unnamed city, and spends his days in a listless rotation of clarinet lessons and community theater. Everything changes when he receives a mysterious package containing an unfinished play about a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil. Also enclosed is a request for help by the play's author, a taxidermist who resides in the same city.
Spiegel & Grau. 224 pages. $24. ISBN: 9781400069262

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[B]rilliant. ... Be assured that with this short, crisply written, many-layered book, Martel has once again demonstrated that nothing tells the truth like fiction." Jean Dubail

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] follow-up every bit as satisfying as Life of Pi. ... The protagonist Henry may have failed to write a literary book about the Holocaust, but Yann Martel succeeds in spades." Cody Corliss

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"... [a] sophisticated fable . ... Not all readers are attracted by magical realism and animal fables, but Beatrice and Virgil is so imbued with passionate moral and intellectual ardor that even the cynical should find it engaging." Brooke Allen

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he humans--notably the writer's wife--are stick figures (though this, of course, may be deliberate). These are minor flaws, however, in what is otherwise a novel that is ambiguous and inscrutable--but also provocative and brilliantly imagined." Adam Woog

Entertainment Weekly 2 of 5 Stars
"[Beatrice and Virgil] reads more like an elaborate writing exercise than a fully realized novel. ... [W]hile the grand finale of an ending does offer a flicker of excitement, it teeters too close to B-movie theatrics to offer genuine satisfaction." Missy Schwartz

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Beatrice and Virgil, unfortunately, is every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching. ... [H]is story has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, using it as a metaphor to evoke ‘the extermination of animal life' and the suffering of ‘doomed creatures' who ‘could not speak for themselves.'" Michiko Kakutani

San Francisco Chronicle 1 of 5 Stars
"[O]ne of the most confounding books I've read in a long while. ... As for this mixture of mock self-effacement, literary posturing and pretentiousness, I would say: Stuff it!" Alan Cheuse

Critical Summary

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, at least when it comes to Yann Martel's latest novel. Is it extraordinary? Or is it awful? It depends on which reviewer you ask. Several critics found Beatrice and Virgil a beautifully rendered allegory of the Holocaust and humankind's penchant for cruelty. Others were far less impressed, calling the novel silly, pretentious, and a "disappointing and often perverse novel"--a far cry from Life of Pi (New York Times). With opinions this contrary, our readers will have to be their own judges. Does that make it the perfect book-group book--or the worst?