Julia's Reviews > Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
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Jun 18, 08

Recommended to Julia by: book club, lots of friends, Amazon, Powells, Man Booker judges o
Recommended for: zookeepers and/or shipwreck memoir aficionados
Read in June, 2008

** spoiler alert ** Is it possible to recommend heartily a book that I almost stopped reading on three separate occasions? Based on some amazing recommendations for this book, I broke some of my book-buying rules. So utterly assured was I that this book brimmed with potential to become my new Favorite Book For A Few Months that I bought the book instead of checking it out from the library. In addition, I purchased the hardback and not the paperback - that hasn't happened for a very long time - harkening back to our (halcyon?) DINK (Double Income - No Kids) days as a family. And, to top it all off, the artist in me decided to go with not only the hardback but a special edition, illustrated hardback copy of Life of Pi. I had invested heavily, in a kind of relative book kind of way, that I would really like this book.

Imagine my disappointment and growing annoyance when this book started off like nothing special at all and continued on its lackluster little path for 95 freakin' pages! I definitely would have stopped reading this book and moved on to many other tempting titles that I bought recently on a book-buying binge, but I kept thinking about how much I wanted to like it. I'm also a little stubborn about the money potentially wasted and more so that - I would have had to admit defeat to a book if I stopped reading it, so I just spent a month making myself keep reading a very plain book. All the while I was wondering if my friends, the reviewers at both Amazon and Powells, and the 2002 judging panel for the Man Booker Prize were literary idiots or liars for overselling this lame book. That seemed so unlikely, but this book starts out and stays blah for so long that I was wondering what was up.

The first part tells the story of the sadly named Piscine Molitor Patel. The one interesting section of the dud first part of the book was the story of how he masterfully recreated not only his name but his peer's perception of him in an environment almost as daunting as the desolate sea - his primary school/jr. high environment. He was named after a pool that was revered by influential family members. Being named after a pool was strange enough, but he had to suffer humiliation at the hands of several tired teachers through the years accidentally called him "pissing" instead of Piscine. This slip of their collective tongues throughout the years was not lost on his classmates. He reinvents himself dramatically on the first day of class into Pi Patel. This tenacious spirit seen in his earlier years alludes to the potential he is forced to realize in his grueling marathon fight for survival while adrift for so many months later after a tragic accident at sea.

Pi as told through Yann Martel's narrative voice is so convincingly Indian in nuances and phrases that for the first section of the book, I found myself reading the dialogue between Pi and his brother and parents in an Indian accent in my head.

One interesting facet to this first part of the book is that he considers himself an equal adherent to three very different religions simultaneously - Christianity, Buddism, and Islam. It felt like a less-interesting version of some of the spiritual explorations more expertly chronicled in the novel Eat, Pray, Love. Also, this thread was not carried through with any significance in the other sections of the book, so I wondered why it was in there at all.

The forgettable story really picks up once his family decides to pack up and sell the family zoo and relocate to Canada. The book's shift from ho-hum to mesmerizing is thankfully immediate and continual. There are several amazing things that happen in the book at this point. Pi is thrown by adults with questionable motives into a lifeboat with some unimaginable seafaring companions - a 450 pound Bengal tiger from the zoo named (comically) Richard Parker, a hyena, and the prized zoo orangutan. Pi transitions through disbelief of his situation to acceptance as the only way to survive and truly amazes me as a solitary little jr. high McGyver on the Pacific. He tames Richard Parker, goes blind, learns how to survive with continually dwindling supplies, strength, resolve, and peace.

It might have been the amazing description of his collection of Richard Parker's poop that swayed the judges to hand Yann Martel the prize. This infrequently-traveled literary topic is written in such a funny way that any other authors considering attempting similar coverage (and you KNOW they are legion) should just give it up now - they can't compete.

Another favorite selection of the book was the description of a villanous hyena early in the lifeboat section of the book. He wrote that the hyena's thick neck and high shoulders that slope to the hindquarters look as if they've come from a discarded prototype fo the giraffe.

His casual approach to sharing arcane yet fascinating animal knowledge and patterns was very interesting throughout the book. It's such a foreign, specialized area of expertise but you feel smarter and more knowledgeable once you learn more about the classifications, alliances, tendencies, and processes of so many different animals.

Traveling with the endearing Pi through the beginning of his amazing journey and seeing him mature through the most unusual, accelerated way - surviving the elements for many months at sea while cohabiting with a Bengal tiger - took two strange and unwelcomed turns near the end of the book.

His boat finds a fantasy-based island that becomes even more incredible the longer he stays there. Being a Lost fan, I wondered if at any minute he might find the distinctive black character on a white background indicating that this land mass was a remote satellite of the Dharma Initiative. This was annoying to me and planted some small seeds of betrayal that such a tremendously enjoyable story would shift strangely into a section that seemed frustratingly vague in believability.

So, with this mindset, the very last section of the book set off a big ol' stinkbomb that slightly tainted retroactively my perception of the part of the book that I had heartily enjoyed until the end. It employed the most hackneyed of sitcom cop-out endings - the "waking up and realizing it was all just a dream" ending that leaves you feeling cheated even in an episode of The Facts Of Life, but seems so grossly inappropriate in this book.

I was wondering as I was reading how a story that got more and more fantastic in scope could finish itself off in a satisfying way, but of all the options, I don't understand how this one could be chosen in the author's mind as the best. It ended with an interview that was written in interview form. This is a writing format that I never find enjoyable in magazines, but what is it doing here? Pi was anti-climatically rescued off the coast of Mexico, and two Japanese insurance adjusters interview him to try to find out more details of their main financial interest, the reason his family's ship, the Tsimtsum, wrecked.

In the course of this interview, lots of gratuitously unnecessary dialogue is exchanged between the two interviewers and Pi. They aren't believing Pi's recollection of his amazing survival, and then, when goaded into telling something more believable, Pi essentially retells the story in a condensed version with people representing each of the animal characters of the first version. It just felt wrong and like a big misstep in the book to end such a great story with ambiguity and a different tone than the rest of the best part - the middle shipwreck part of the book. Did Yann Martel give so much of himself to the other section that he was spent at the end and hired a much lesser ghost writer to finish it off?

So, to wrap up - first part uninteresting and mostly forgettable - larger middle part really amazing and worth it - and last part - incredibly disappointing. But, the middle part was so very good that I still recommend it with the abovementioned qualifying asterisks.
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