Stephanie's Reviews > Emily and Einstein

Emily and Einstein by Linda Francis Lee
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
3921591
's review
Mar 24, 11

bookshelves: mainstream
Read on March 21, 2011 — I own a copy

This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com

The other night I was discussing with my boyfriend, a Buddhist, about how being reincarnated as a dog really wouldn’t be so bad. Endless pats, walks, and cheese snuck under the table? Okay, so you’d have to become accustomed to lumpy dog food and bottom sniffing, but those issues are fairly small in the wider schemes of things.

For Sandy Portman, though, a wealthy executive who likes to strut his stuff and splash his wealth before anyone who’ll put up with his obnoxious ways, Pal Meatybites and tail-end investigations are about to become the norm. On his way home to tell his wife Emily that he wants to leave her to pursue various soulless shenanigans, Sandy meets his maker–literally. The upshot? To get into those pearly gates, Sandy has to repent his ways. As a dog.

What follows is an often hilarious, but frequently poignant examination of not only grief and loss, but also of self-reflection and growth. The story is told in alternating perspectives: through Sandy’s newly canine eyes, and through Emily’s rather more human ones. As “Einstein”, his doggy moniker, Sandy finds himself offering far more support to his wife than he ever managed during his two-legged existence, and his newly taciturn company allows Emily the space she needs to overcome the challenges she faces upon Sandy’s death–a home ownership battle, for one, and a rather pressing career advancement issue, as well as a series of recently aired issues relating to her own identity and her relationship with her mother and sister.

My thoughts

I picked up Emily and Einstein expecting a throwaway read heavy on the situational humour and light on content. And while it’s true that the book brims with larger than life characters who make Anna Wintour look mousy, and Sandy/Einstein does partake in rather a good deal of doggy mischief–an unfortunate cereal-bingeing incident and some wilful destruction of property come to mind–the novel for the most part transcends the maudlin midday movie feel into which it could so easily slump.

A good deal of this is due to the fact the author does an admirable job of creating characters with whom it’s so easy to empathise. Admittedly, Sandy is frequently an ill-mannered git who should probably spend a bit more time in the laundry as part of a “time out” punishment than he does, but Linda Francis Lee manages to draw him in such a way that he falls just this side of unconscionable. Part of this can be attributed to her careful delineation of Sandy’s backstory and motivations, all of which paint him in more of a pathetic light than a cruel and selfish one. Sandy may have presented himself as a large and formidable presence, but in reality, he is vanishingly small, with his sense of self-worth frequently under attack by the fact that he was born into wealth–and thus his success has been created for him. Sandy has spent his life feeling impotent and emasculated, and his typical response is to drag down others with him: it seems that this is the only ability he is able to wield with any efficacy. But worse, while Sandy’s success and wealth are the result of someone else’s skills and acumen, we come to find out that the basis for much of this is a lie. Not only is Sandy little more than a puppet in the greater scheme of things, but all of this rests on fraudulent foundations.

Curiously, while Sandy’s reincarnation as Einstein is ostensibly to help him become a better person by acting with largesse rather than as an emotional miser, his actions are heavily shepherded by a guardian angel figure who threatens to have Sandy cross over for good if he doesn’t improve his doggy ways. Sandy is thus effectively powerless throughout his entire existence–in life, in life mark II (where being a dog rather limits his capacity to exercise control over much at all), and no doubt in whatever follows after that blinding white light. Moreover, not only is Sandy’s agency more limited as a result of his reincarnation, but the sphere over which he can exert influence is drastically limited, too: Sandy is confined to Emily’s apartment save for when he behaves himself and is taken out for a walk. This situation, then, only adds to the challenges Sandy faces in his reconciliation, highlighting that one’s actions can result in a slippery slope down into hell, and highlighting the need to act generously and beneficently from the beginning, when our agency is at its greatest. It’s an interesting rumination on agency and predestination, and one that my boyfriend would argue is the cumulative result of Sandy’s past life actions–larger, wider, karmic forces and responses.

In contrast to Sandy’s diminishing efficacy, Emily finds her own sphere of influence massively expanded as a result of Sandy’s death. Pressing external forces–threats of eviction and demotion, as well as a visit from her sister that brings certain personal issues to the fore–force her to act in order to guide her life back on track, and she does so with admirable strength and passion. Sandy’s death becomes a catalyst for self-examination and development, and while Emily suffers from her fair share of setbacks and insecurities, her pragmatism and big-heartedness see her gradually turning her situation into one of opportunities. Admittedly, the explicit contrast between Sandy’s habit of turning opportunities into negatives and Emily’s opposite approach is not especially subtle, and there are moments where the book slumps into a crevasse of didacticism, but the material is generally light-hearted and neatly-written enough that these sections aren’t too painful to read. Interestingly, Emily finds herself acting more and more to help those who can’t help themselves–Einstin and Sandy, for example–but over time becomes less inclined to try to act for those with whose behaviour she disagrees, such as her sister. The author, however, does paint Emily’s grieving process–both that associated with Sandy’s death, and also for her pained relationship with her mother and sister–beautifully, and there are sections that are quite moving in their raw honesty.

Perhaps the main area in which the book doesn’t quite his the mark is in its predictability, and also occasionally in terms of its believability. Sandy of course eventually redeems himself, and the subsequent few scenes are somewhat dull in their paint-by-numbers approach. Emily’s journey towards self-fulfilment results in her every dream coming true, and then some, and the way in which the various threads tie together can be fairly easily predicted from a mere few chapters in. Indeed, there’s a sense of wish-fulfilment going on here, and the way in which Emily’s pleasant nature and series of good deeds results in her getting everything she’d ever desired feels a little icky to me. In terms of believability, my major issues were in terms of Einstein’s ability to communicate so easily with Emily and her family, and also their bizarre predilection to accept his decidedly undoggy actions as quite normal. Einstein’s barking is taken as an effort to communicate; while any meaningful look or gesture on his behalf is treated with an odd sort of reverence. Narrative-wise, there are a few elements that struggle a little to work: the first chapter could be excised without much issue, Emily’s romance with Max could be either cut entirely or properly fleshed out, and some of the Einstein chapters could be guttered without much being lost. Indeed, I’d be curious to see if this book could work without the Einstein chapters at all, although the result would no doubt be a much more challenging, darker read.

Conclusions

Far more than the light and fluffy read I was expecting, Emily and Einstein is a thoughtful and moving read that examines issues of agency, karma, and self-concept and self-efficacy against a backdrop of grief and loss. It’s a charming read, and one that would work well as the subject of a book discussion.
1 like · likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Emily and Einstein.
sign in »

No comments have been added yet.