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Editorial Reviews

The youngest author included in The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” fiction issue last year, 25-year-old Tea Obreht is no doubt one of the most talked about novelists in the business right now. And her highly anticipated debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, has more than lived up to the deafening hype; it is an engrossing story that masterfully mixes realism and fantasy, exploring intricate themes of life, death, and wartime. Both Obreht and her main character are skilled storytellers, and to hear their beautifully woven narratives performed by Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs only makes it that much easier to escape into The Tiger’s Wife.

Set in an unnamed, mysterious Balkan country, The Tiger’s Wife tells the story of a special bond between Natalia Stefanovic and her recently deceased grandfather. Natalia is a physician charged with inoculating orphaned children vulnerable to disease in the war-torn countryside. She grew up very close to her grandfather, also a physician, and his sudden death in a village he had no known ties to sends her on a pilgrimage to understand the circumstances of his passing. Along the way, she remembers and discovers details of her grandfather’s past, including two stories he told her when she was a child — one of the deathless man, and another of an escaped tiger cared for by a deaf-mute girl. Obreht weaves Natalia’s story with the two fables seamlessly. It is a delicate balance of realism/science vs. myth/superstition — Duerden and Sachs guide the listener through the intricate structure with their affecting narration.

The Tiger’s Wife features a cast of dynamic, unforgettable characters, some with even supernatural qualities. Duerden and Sachs help smooth the departures from reality but also thrive in those fantastical moments (especially Sachs, in his delivery of the fables told by the grandfather). In the same vein, Duerden’s characterization of Natalia as a pragmatic physician unalarmed by the horrors of war and sickness is equally informed. However, Natalia is passionate about one thing — understanding her grandfather’s life and death. The Tiger’s Wife is an enchanting story that will stay with you long after you finish listening.

—Suzanne Day

Publisher's Summary

Weaving a brilliant latticework of family legend, loss, and love, Téa Obreht, the youngest of The New Yorker’s 20 best American fiction writers under 40, has spun a timeless novel that will establish her as one of the most vibrant, original authors of her generation.

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend, Zóra, begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself.

But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.

Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. “These stories,” Natalia comes to understand, “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of her grandfather’s life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for.

©2011 Tea Obreht (P)2011 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Téa Obreht is the most thrilling literary discovery in years.” (Colum McCann)
“A novel of surpassing beauty, exquisitely wrought and magical. Téa Obreht is a towering new talent.” (T. C. Boyle)
“A marvel of beauty and imagination. Téa Obreht is a tremendously talented writer.” (Ann Patchett)

What members say

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Not entirely hype

This book and its author have been promoted tirelessly by publisher and critics alike. Since my own family is Slovenian, I caved and downloaded it. I enjoyed it very much, but look forward to the author's more mature works. Beautifully written and narrated, it takes a while to register that the characters and the story are not quite filled out -- the secrets, the entwined folktale/history do not quite pay off. But could anyone write a book this ambitious at 25? Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) the Balkans will yield decades of material for this talented writer.

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Howard
  • Cumberland, MD, United States
  • 05-02-11

Left me unfulfilled!

This novel wraps several stories within stories, all which focus on the narrator's recently deceased Grandfather. These stories are all compelling each in their own right. They just don't seem to have conclusions worthy of the beauty and complexity of the tale.

The premise of this novel is wonderful. The Author does a rewarding job weaving these stories together in an interesting and compelling style. That is, until we get to the conclusion. I felt the last chapter and the final minutes were rushed, perhaps finished to meet some deadline. The conclusion left me feeling unfulfilled, It is a shame such an elegant work of fiction was plucked from the vine just before it was completely ripe. It's a tasty experience, but falls just a few millimeters short of reaching it's full potential.

Another point of contention is that the author sometimes gets too devoted to painting a landscape or setting the scene for us. Occasionally, I found myself wishing she would just get on with the story. I will concede, though, she is very artful with these overdeveloped descriptions. In true Audible form, the Narrators are exquisite.

I don't regret listening to "The Tiger's Wife" I just feel slightly unfulfilled by the conclusion.

18 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Good, Not Great

There are some really great moments in this book, but it never really comes together as a whole. Obreht spins interesting stories, but they should have been stand alone tales, not woven together into a singular narrative. There's no question in my mind that Tea Obreht has talent, but The Tiger's Wife felt like it was written by an, as of yet, immature author who hasn't quite come into her own. I am interested in seeing what Obreht will write next.

The narrator was adequate, but her voice often went into a sing-song cadence and, after the first hour or two of listening to the book, I grew tired of it.

12 of 13 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Ilana
  • Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • 05-17-11

An Unforgettable Tale

A heart-wrenching and beautiful novel that takes place in un-named parts of the Balkans, about Natalia, a young physician who quite suddenly learns that her beloved grandfather, a celebrated doctor in his time, has passed away. She is on her way to an orphanage across the border when she learns the news, and though she is grief stricken, she decides to continue with the trip. While we follow her along her humanitarian mission, we also travel to her memories of special times spent with her grandfather. They have shared many special moments together through the years, and the old man, who has kept a copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book in his breast pocket all his life, has told her stories not shared with anyone else. Among these is the strange tale of how he came to meet Gavran Gaile, the Deathless man. Another is the story about the tiger's wife, about a tiger that leaves the zoo to flee the bombarded city during World War II, and treks far away into the mountains to end up by a small village where superstitions abound. The inhabitants are convinced the tiger is the incarnation of the devil, and yet, a strange relationship develops between the tiger and a young, deaf and dumb girl who is horribly abused by her husband. Natalia has always assumed that these stories were just folk tales, but as she tries to put together the pieces of how her grandfather has ended up dying in an obscure little village by himself, she discovers that they may have been inspired from real life events after all.

I absolutely loved this rich, multilayered novel, with the slow building up of the different narratives which form a rich tapestry. I am quite sure this story will stay with me for a long time to come... and perhaps forever. Sublime.

The audiobook was fine, but not great. I wasn't crazy about Susan Duerden's style, though having a man take over the parts of the story told by the grandfather was a nice touch.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Not a fan

Like new books from many other new or new-ish writers, this one was not what I was expecting, and the audible blurb is misleading. I was expecting a story about one person and her experiences on location in a war-torn area, and what this is is a narrative told mostly by the grandfather, with a lot of fantasy requiring way too much suspension of disbelief. For me, anyway.

I should listen more carefully to what advance blurbs have to say and then run the other way. I think that publishers and book review publications want to applaud originality at the expense of other factors like characterization, detail nuance, approachable story, and so on. The book is very original, in format and in setting, two stars for that, but it's all simply non-relatable for me.

29 of 35 people found this review helpful

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  • linda
  • Washington, DC, United States
  • 01-09-12

Very disappointing.

What would have made The Tiger's Wife better?

The central narrative needs to be stronger and more of the book. The author digresses so much and into such detailed descriptions that you lose the central narrative. I found myself groaning as the book took on a whole other town and people and tale.

What could Tea Obreht have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

Ms. Obreht must have really taken to heart the writing lesson that details help tell the story, because she goes into such detail on so many insignificant elements that it's frustrating and, frankly, boring. And she uses in almost every case three or four elements to describe everything. I started counting them as I was reading, because I knew she couldn't leave it at just one. She needs to be a leaner writer, for me.

How could the performance have been better?

The reader was almost always breathless -- as if every element of the book were crucial. I did not like this reading performance.

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from The Tiger's Wife?

Where do I begin?

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A magical, engrossing tale of a torn country

The reader is transported back and forth in time and place between mysterious and wondrous tales of tigers, a deathless man, the tiger's wife, a bear hunter, a foreign apothecary, and a country torn apart by recurring wars. Peopled by both a sophisticated, liberal urban population and backwards, superstitious peasants, the former Yugoslavia is the home of diverse ethnic, religious groups, rich musical traditions, political unrest and the devastation of wars - from without and within. Told by a young woman doctor, granddaughter to a famous doctor who served his countrymen irrespective of the ethnic-religious divides, the reader is carried along an undulating journey into fact, fantasy, fear and love. At the end the reader wonders aloud - what is true and what is fiction? What is tale and what is history? And what will be the futures of the new nations that have emerged from the ashes that were?
And who was the tiger's wife?
An outstanding literary achievement brilliantly and engrossingly narrated.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Boring, confusing, what the heck was it all about

I lived in the Balkans. It is an interesting place. I have no clue what this fairy tale was trying to tell us. Ho hum. I didn't think the characters were well developed. It just didn't flow. I kept rewinding because I was so confused.

12 of 15 people found this review helpful

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Depressing book about death

At first, I thought this was going to be a book about the aftermath of civil war. I was quite interested in the story of the young woman doctor who was taking vaccines to an orphanage in a part of a country that until recently had been on the opposite side of the war. But pretty soon the story started accumulating characters, each with a backstory that was so long I started to wonder who was really the main character. The farther in I went, the less the story made sense, until I figured out that it is essentially a really depressing book about death.

The grandfather, the Deathless Man, Derisa, the men digging in the vineyard, and obviously the protagonist, Natalia, are all dealing with death in their own particular ways. The book also considers how difficult it is to predict who will live and who will die (doctors, apothecary, Blind Olo, the Deathless Man). The gruesome story of the deaths of the animals in the capital city’s zoo also seems, on the surface, to be about death, but I think that is meant to be a metaphor for how a civil war is like a country eating itself, or its own children. Yeah, depressing.

But being depressing doesn’t make a book a poor read. What I could not reconcile in my mind was the conceit that the entire book was being written by Natalia (it’s all a first-person narrative). Apparently, in the time she had available when she was not doctoring, she went around the country finding these obscure people from her grandfather’s past (I think they’re from his past? The connections between the people were very hard to follow), listened to them tell the entire story of their depressing lives, and then wrote it all down. And the details in the stories were simply too perfect to have been retrieved in this manner, via second- and third-hand accounts. For instance, at one point she is describing when Luka was a musician, and she specifically says that one of his friends had a space between his front teeth and another friend had been burned while lighting a fire. No one would go to that level of detail in telling a story about their far distant past, and if they did, a sensible storyteller would know to edit out such extraneous information. And what is it with the dancing bears? I recently read another book with a dancing bear that comes out of nowhere . . . if there is some special meaning there I missed it.

I listened to this as an audio book read by Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs. I have to say that I loved the way Robin Sachs read the sections narrated by the grandfather. I wish the book had been from the point of view of the grandfather all the way through, it might have made more sense.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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A dark tale without much hope

I had heard many good things about this story but it definitely fell short. While the story was compelling - Balkan country, young doctor finding information about her grandfather's past - it didn't hold me. The inexperience of the author came out in her choice of what to include and what to leave out -- too much was included in places that just didn't need explaining. It is also a very dark story and at the end, I was left feeling empty - that there were things undone and unsaid.

The narrator is okay but gave me a sense that she is sitting on the edge of her seat in the way she pushes forward with the words. That didn't add to the despondency that I felt throughout the novel. I finished this book but was really glad when it was over and I didn't have to read it anymore.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful