Etta and Otto and Russell and James is an adventure into heartache and love, into loss and fulfillment, and into the inevitability of time’s passing. Written by Emma Hooper, the novel spans a wide range of human experience to encapsulate the profound joys and sadness that are found in simply living.
Etta has decided to leave the farm where she lives with her husband Otto in order to see the ocean, an element of nature that in all of her 83 years she has never experienced. She leaves Otto a letter detailing where she has gone, and asks him not to worry, as she will do her best to remember to return.
Within pages, the reader experiences the gyration between past and present that serves as the textual framework for Hooper’s novel. The author develops her characters in a backward, inside twisted arch that allows for greater understanding and empathy on the part of the reader. Hooper guides us through the intricacies of each character’s past, so that we can become acquainted with the patterns and traumas that have shaped the elderly trio we meet in the novel’s beginning. This trio is completed by Russell, the Vogel’s neighbor and childhood friend.
Though the novel at first seems straightforward and thoroughly candid, we soon find that there is a magical realism that permeates the pages of Etta and Otto and Russell and James. This magic presents itself at different points in the novel as talking coyotes and flying children among other things. These elements perfectly capture the arch of aging as they are transformed from childhood imaginings to the beginning stages of dementia. At times these magical elements can become confusing or distracting, especially when it’s not entirely clear what purpose they are serving. However, as mentioned above, the allusions that these fantastical elements make lie perfectly with the novels themes and threads. To thoroughly enjoy the novel, readers must recognize that not every moment will be methodically fleshed out or explained.
After all, the fissures that Hooper creates in the narrative are what give the text its richness and depth. Her minimalistic style mirrors the letters Etta received from Otto during the war: full of holes. Holes that characters attempt to fill ceaselessly, holes that Etta feels she must go to the ocean to fill, literal holes in memory, and metaphorical holes in hearts. The book is littered with these voids that call to be filled, some of which can never be filled, and some of which characters are too afraid to even attempt filling.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a story about letting go; a story about cutting ties with all of the things that don’t serve you (including feelings of guilt), about living each moment fully, and about embracing everything around you with love. Though at times heart wrenching, the novel encourages readers to treasure and recognize the meaningful experiences that make up a life, even if those memories and experiences might be slightly, or profoundly, tragic.
Published by Simon and Schuster, Etta and Otto and Russell and James was released January 2015 and can be found at your local bookstore.
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley for a fair and honest review of the text.