three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Rebecca Hunt
user_rating: 
0

A-Mr ChartwellRebecca Hunt, a British artist, earned her degree in fine art from Central Saint Martins College in London. Mr. Chartwell is her first novel.

The Story: Throughout his lifetime, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered from what he called the "black dog of depression." In Hunt's allegorical debut, set in 1964, Churchill's depression takes on the form of Mr. Chartwell, aka Black Pat, an enormous, drooling, smelly canine. Churchill, approaching his ninth decade, is preparing to retire from Parliament; at the same time, a young librarian and widow named Esther Hammerhans decides to rent out a room in her home. Esther's advertisement is answered by Black Pat, who slobbers all over the furniture but who is also quite charming. As Black Pat tries to insinuate himself into Esther's life, the widow must decide if she will allow him take up permanent residence in her home and in her heart.
The Dial Press. 256 pages. $24. ISBN: 9781400069408

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[A]s delicious as it is audacious. ... Hunt pulls off the balancing act between airy and merely superficial, between whimsical and merely slight." Julie Wittes Schlack

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Hunt's highly original novel delicately reveals how Black Pat insinuates himself into Esther's life through flattery, criticism and pushiness. ... Mr. Chartwell has its dark moments, but it is also hopeful, funny and wise." Laurie Hertzel

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Sometimes she pushes the metaphor too hard. ... But for the most part Hunt is brightly skilled at turning a phrase, capturing a quiet moment or making her words bring noises to your ears and odors to your nose." Alexandra Horowitz

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"I know it sounds maudlin, even obscenely silly, a grown-up version of Eeyore who encourages people to slit their wrists and swallow pills. But Hunt maintains the story's poignancy on a razor's edge, balancing the light romantic comedy involving Esther and her friends at the library with the tragedy of her stoic grief at home." Ron Charles

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Written in a preciously cute style with stock British characters, Mr. Chartwell's novelty wears thin pretty fast, but Ms. Hunt doesn't seem to notice. Readers will, unfortunately." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

Despite their initial reaction ("Oh, no! Not another talking dog book!"), critics were pleasantly surprised by Mr. Chartwell. The novel comes on the heels of Andrew O'Hagan's The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, and offers an insightful look at the insidious nature of depression. "As an allegory of depression," notes the Washington Post, "Mr. Chartwell is exceptionally illuminating." One exception came from the reviewer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who found the story ridiculous and clich├ęd on all levels. But for most readers, and certainly for those who have ever battled with their own black mutt, Mr. Chartwell is "a spirited tonic, maybe just the thing to rebalance your humors" (Washington Post).