Monday, January 19, 2015

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Quick Facts

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Series: N/A

Date Read: January 10, 2015

Source: Free review copy from Netgalley

Publication Date: January 20, 2015

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Genres: Adult fiction, contemporary

Summary (taken from Goodreads): A gorgeous literary debut about an elderly woman’s last great adventure walking across Canada. A beautiful novel of pilgrimage, of fulfilling lifelong promises, of a talking coyote called James, of unlikely heroes and hundreds of papier-mâché animals…

Eighty-two-year-old Etta has never seen the ocean. So early one morning she takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 3,232 kilometers from rural Canada eastward to the coast. 

Her husband Otto wakes to a note left on the kitchen table. I will try to remember to come back, Etta writes to him. Otto has seen the ocean, having crossed the Atlantic years ago to fight in a far-away war. He understands. But with Etta gone, the memories come crowding in and Otto struggles to keep them at bay.

Russell has spent his whole life trying to keep up with Otto and loving Etta from afar. Russell insists on finding Etta, wherever she’s gone. Leaving his own farm will be the first act of defiance in his life.

As Etta walks further toward the ocean, accompanied by a coyote named James, the lines among memory, illusion, and reality blur. Rocking back and forth with the pull of the waves, Etta and Otto and Russell and James moves from the hot and dry present of a quiet Canadian farm to a dusty burnt past of hunger, war, passion, and hope; from trying to remember to trying to forget; and inspires each of its characters to visit the sites they’ve longed to see and say the things they’ve longed to say. This is dazzling literary fiction about the rediscovery and care of the soul, and the idea it’s never too late for a great adventure.
This is the story of three people, each around eighty, who have spent the majority of their lives together. When Otto and Russell were in school, their old teacher was replaced with Etta, who was around the same age as themselves. From there, the lives of these three are mixed together, blended, it seems, almost into one.

The book itself intertwines the past and the present. In the past there are war memories, the story of Etta and Russell's brief romance, and school and dancing and songs. In the present there is Etta, walking to the ocean, Otto, making papier-mâché animals, Russell, in search of Etta, and James, a talking coyote who follows Etta around.

At first, the story felt pretty cohesive, but further in things get more scrambled. I found myself reading parts over again, to be sure I read them right. We are mostly following Etta's journey in this book, and she is not completely in touch with reality - sometimes, her memories are clear. Other times, she is confused. She keeps a note in her pocket to remind her of herself, and that lists her family members.

While the book lacked clarity, this did seem intentional, and I actually really liked the writing style. I liked getting further into the story and feeling just a little bit more lost on every page. This resembled the characters and the situation very well. It added to the book, rather than took away from it.

The characters themselves were great as well. I loved reading their pasts, although sometimes I did want to just jump ahead to what was happening currently. I did expect to see more of Russell in the present, as I really enjoyed his character - if he had a story of his own, I would read it. If there was one more thing I could ask for in this book, it would be more Russell. His present scenes were so short, and so far apart. Still, I loved reading about Etta and Otto. I enjoyed the parts with James as well, especially early on in the book.
I do have to say that this book won't be for everybody. The style is different, and some readers won't appreciate that. If you like a straightforward story, I would recommend reading something else. However, this is a sweet story of love and friendship and adventure, and it's perfect for readers who don't mind being a bit confused, It all felt very real, very heartfelt and touching, and - given the right reader - so, so much can be taken from this story.


  1. Great review. I saw this book on NetGalley, but I wasn't really sure if I wanted to read it or not. It sounds like it was a good read though. Sometimes I like different writing styles so I probably wouldn't be bothered by that. :)

    1. I was uncertain as well, but I'm really glad that I requested it in the end. I hope you enjoy it, if you decide to read!

  2. I've seen so many great things about this book, it's nice to know that you enjoyed it. It's definitely on my TBR for this year! Nice review! :)

    1. I'm glad you plan on reading it - it's really great!

      Thank you :)

  3. Hm, I am not sure how I feel about reading this yet, but the idea of this being a recounting of memories friends share is cool. And I think it is realistic how some memories are clearer than others.

    1. I would recommend it if you like different writing styles, but if you like more of a clear, straightforward story, I wouldn't. It's not that the memories aren't clear - they actually make more sense than the present, especially towards the end. Etta, the main character, was having problems with her memory and so things became unclear since we were seeing them from her point of view.