Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil

The first thing you need to know about Beatrice and Virgil is that it is not for everyone. Many will find it to be moving and unforgettable; probably an equal number will be bored with it, even to the point of not finishing it. It is that kind of novel. The second thing you need to know is that it is a difficult novel to review without lessening its potential impact on the reader. Reviewers need to be particularly careful with this one because, the less readers know about the book’s details going in, the more they are likely to feel its emotional wallop.

Beatrice and Virgil is about, Henry, a novelist that has had a huge amount of unexpected success with his first novel, so much success, in fact, that he is not inclined to start writing a second book. Instead, he moves to an unnamed large city with his wife, where the couple lives comfortably off the proceeds of his bestseller. Henry takes music lessons, performs in amateur plays, and takes a clerking job in a small chocolate store. All is well until the day he receives a package containing a copy of a strange short story of Flaubert’s and a few pages from an unknown play.

Curious about the unknown writer, and the man’s bold request for his help, Henry locates him and his amazing taxidermy shop. Over several visits to the shop, the taxidermist (also named Henry) reads scenes from his play aloud while (our) Henry becomes more and more caught up in the story of Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the monkey. He is so intrigued by the characters, and the way the taxidermist has captured their fictional personalities in the donkey and monkey posed on the shop floor, that he finds himself looking forward to visiting the preserved animals - and he misses them when he leaves the shop. The two Henrys form a relationship of sorts, as Henry (the author) helps Henry (the taxidermist) complete or re-write several scenes of the play.

Much as in Martel’s Life of Pi, there is more to Beatrice and Virgil than first meets the eye. The reader will be charmed by the relationship between the donkey and her monkey friend but, at times, will perhaps be bored by other parts of the story. I doubt that Martel purposely set out to bore any of his readers but, as one who was thus affected, I can honestly say that those moments of boredom would ultimately help to maximize the impact of what was yet to come.

Most likely, one will either love or hate Beatrice and Virgil. I come down on the side of those who loved it.

Rated at: 5.0

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