Sweetly soft: Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James

etta and ottoThis wasn’t a book I originally intended to read, but then I started seeing it everywhere. Bookstores. Newspapers. Goodreads. Costco. Best seller lists. Translations. Giller buzz. Finally, I saw it on display at my local library and was forced to face facts: the universe wanted me to read this novel.

Hooper neatly lays out the subject of the novel: Etta, Otto, Russell, and James, each story woven into a whole. Their threads wind together and unravel by turns – a study in the parallelism of seemingly separate journeys.

Etta, 83, longs to see the ocean before she dies; she starts out early one morning, walking from her Saskatchewan farm.

James is either a wild coyote or a figment of her imagination – and, either way, is the only companion Etta welcomes on her journey.

Otto, her husband, stays behind. He is plagued by nightmares left over from the war. He learns to bake, using her recipe cards.

Russell is as close to Otto as a brother and loved Etta since before she married his best friend. With Etta gone, he is drawn to follow her – or possibly set out on a journey of his own.

Hooper alternates between the present and the past, following the ways her characters originally came together: as a reader, you grow up with these characters, fall in love when they do, mourn with them, fight with them, dream with them.

By the time the book draws to a close, it’s as though we’ve seen four lives flash before our eyes. It would be easy to choke a novel to death with so many details, but Hooper has a keen eye for what to include and what to briefly sketch: miscarriages, PTSD, dementia, and love affairs all lurk on the periphery, but remain allusions. The result is an incredible depth to each character – and yet an incredible lightness in the novel as a whole.

My only disappointment was in the ending – but that might be my fault for thinking the end of a journey should have as much meaning as the journey itself. All the same, I would have preferred at least another chapter to wind things up a little more tightly.

Perhaps he most striking thing about this novel is its inherent softness; every action and reaction is measured, natural, gentle. There is very little anger in this book, and the conflict has weight but no intense heat. Instead, the novel advances at the steady, comfortable pace of a small town; I found myself invested in the characters but not anxious about them. It’s a good combination – an unlikely and unexpected form of vacation literature, and ultimately a beautiful Canadian novel as soft and sweet as butter.


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