History of Wolves

When the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced this week, the appearance of Emily Fridlund’s debut novel was perhaps the biggest surprise. I was only halfway through the book at the time, and although I liked more than some people seem to, I didn’t think it was worthy of the shortlist. And having finished it, my opinion still holds.

The History of Wolves is the story of a teenage girl named Madeline. She was brought up in a commune that eventually fell apart, and now she and her parents are alone on the isolated Minnesota property. Her parents are distant, and she’s left to her own devices a lot of the time.

In school, Madeline is also something of a misfit, interested in other misfits, especially her classmate Lily and her history teacher Mr. Grierson. But she’s mostly an observer, never really close to either of them, aside from the brief period when she works on a project about wolves for a history competition at Grierson’s behest. When Lily later accuses Grierson of making sexual advance, Madeline is even more isolated, with no one to talk to about any of it and no way to make sense of her feelings.

So all of that is the backdrop for the main story—that of Madeline’s relationship with a family that moves into a nearby lake house for the summer. Madeline immediately takes an interest in them. Patra, the mother, is young and doesn’t know anyone in the area. Her husband, Leo, is a scientist and scholar, and he is staying in the city to continue his work while Patra and their son sojourn at the lake. Four-year-old Paul is imaginative and playful. Patra is happy to have Madeline’s help looking after Paul for the summer.

As the story develops, we realize that something isn’t quite right about this family. Madeline, narrating the story as an adult, refers to a trial that happened later. As details accumulate, it becomes clear that Paul’s stomachaches and Patra’s obedience to Leo are signs of something more sinister.

Madeline tells this story from her adult perspective, and we also get glimpses of her life away from the lake and her family. She has a roommate, a boyfriend, and a job. She’s left the woods and the lake behind, even if it’s not absent from her thoughts.

Emily Fridlund uses this story to explore themes of isolation and culpability. How guilty can a person be for someone else’s crime? What does is mean when we want to do one thing and actually do something else? The trouble is, this book has too many threads, most of which remain undeveloped.

For example, Madeline’s being brought up in a failed commune would naturally be significant in shaping her character. We see that it turns her into a misfit within the community, and we see that the fracturing of the community has left her family fractured, too. But we learn very little about the actual community. I’d rather have spent more time exploring that than getting glimpses of Madeline’s adulthood, most of which add little to the story. Also undeveloped is the wolf imagery, which seems significant as the novel opens but is eventually dropped.

I appreciated that Fridlund didn’t want to spell out all of the ideas and connections between them. But I wish she’s dropped a few of her ideas entirely so she could develop the remaining ones more fully—or at least not distract readers from the more interesting threads. As it is, the novel feels unpolished, undisciplined, and a little baggy. It has potential, but it wouldn’t have made my shortlist.

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12 Responses to History of Wolves

  1. Liz Mc2 says:

    I completely agree. I thought this novel had a lot of potential but wondered what a firm editorial hand might have done for it. Did you ever understand the narrator’s two names? Did she call herself Linda to try to “fit in” while Madeleine was the name her commune (or her maybe-parents) had given her? I wondered if I missed something while reading.

    I also didn’t understand why she dropped such a thumping clue about what was not right with the family. Maybe the point is that the reader be more aware than the teenage narrator that something is wrong. I wasn’t sure how deliberately unreliable this narrator was–maybe that’s my shortcoming as a reader but it’s another thing that felt underdeveloped.

    • Teresa says:

      I kept expecting her name change to be tied into a rejection of the commune and her parents somehow, but she never went there. It was a weird mix of obscuring some stuff and over-explaining other things.

  2. hlmorris85 says:

    The front matter of the book mentioned something about the first chapter initially being published as a short story in a slightly different form, and that’s kind of what the novel felt like to me–a short story drawn out too long, or a series of stories with disparate ideas that didn’t *quite* fit together. I loved it on a sentence level, the writing was evocative and gorgeous, but it just didn’t add up to a whole.

    • Teresa says:

      The writing was excellent. I wonder if the book would have worked better as interlinked short stories, maybe with the story of Patra and family presented as a novella. It’s the linking that really doesn’t work.

  3. writerrea says:

    I was very surprised to see this show up on the shortlist. Frankly, I was surprised to see it on the longlist. The main thing it had going for me was that the author did get that part of Minnesota right (it’s where I grew up), and that’s probably why I stuck with the book to the end.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s nice to hear that she got the area right. The sense of place felt very strong, but I’ve never been there and didn’t know how accurate it was.

  4. Ann Marie says:

    I agree. I read this as an ARC and rated it 3.75/5. I enjoyed it well enough but was shocked to see it on the short list.

  5. This was just recommended to me on a post about contemporary fiction (I’m trying to find more good examples) and then I saw it was on the Booker shortlist. It’s so interesting to read all the different opinions, whether or not I end up actually reading the book.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think if you do read it. I think it being on the Booker list may end up hurting it because it’s not in that league.

  6. Sunita says:

    Great review, Teresa. I’m going to read it before October 17 but I imagine I’ll have much the same reaction you and Liz did.

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