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A Tale of Two Henrys

  • Aug 17, 2010
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 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.

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More Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel reviews
review by . December 10, 2010
   The subtitle of this post should be something like “In which I explain my ambivalence about a book I REALLY wanted to love. But meh.” Published April 13, 2010 by Spiegel & Grau (a RandomHouse imprint) Nine years after Life of Pi (which, by the way, completely rocked my world), Yann Martel brings us Beatrice and Virgil, one of the most anticipated novels of the year. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most disappointing. And believe me, this is not the review I …
review by . March 20, 2010
As a fan of the author's previous novel, Life of Pi, I ordered this novel with high expectations. Like Life of Pi, Beatrice and Virgil centers around animals and has a strange and a surreal feel to it; in this book, strange is taken to new heights.       The entire book consists of vists between two Henrys who live in the same town: one is the author of a long-ago famous novel and the other is a sullen taxidermist. The latter has written the former and asked for help with a play …
Quick Tip by . July 22, 2010
Didn't live up to Martel's first book The Life of Pi.
About the reviewer
Sam Sattler ()
Ranked #252
Oil company professional of almost 40 years experience who has worked in oil-producing countries around the world. I love books, baseball and bluegrass music and hope to dedicate myself to those hobbies … more
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Yann Martel on Animals and the Holocaust in Beatrice and Virgil

I often get asked the question why I use animals in my stories. Life of Pi was set in a zoo and featured a number of animals, and animals once again play a prominent role in my new novel, Beatrice and Virgil. Am I a great animal lover? Well, I suppose I am; nature is indeed beautiful. But the actual reason I like to use animals is because they help me tell my tale. People are cynical about people, but less so about wild animals. A rhinoceros dentist elicits less skepticism, in some ways, than a German dentist. I also use animals in my fiction because people rarely see animals as they truly are, biologically. Rather, they tend to project human traits onto them, seeing nobility in one species, cowardice in another, and so on. This is biological nonsense, of course; every species is and behaves as it needs to in order to survive. But this animal-as-canvas quality is useful for a storyteller. It means that an animal that people feel kindly towards becomes a character that readers feel kindly towards.

Why did I choose to write a novel about the Holocaust? There’s nothing personal to this interest; I’m neither Jewish, nor of German or eastern European extraction. I’m a complete outsider who’s been staring at this monstrous massacre of innocents since I first learned about it as a child living in France. It’s as an artist that I’ve kept coming back to the subject. What can I do ...

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ISBN-10: 1400069262
ISBN-13: 978-1400069262
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

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