Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel – Book Review

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

After Henry’s wild success with his previous book, one that was a sort of fable with animals, he decided that he wanted to write about the Holocaust. He doesn’t, however, want to just write a nonfiction work about the Holocaust, he wants to bring truth to the history through fiction. But writing fiction is not simply enough either, he wants to present both a fiction and a nonfiction account. Then, of course, there’s the problem of what is placed first, the fiction or nonfiction. Henry’s solution that he pitches to his publishers is a flipbook, with the fiction and nonfiction bound together. Unsurprisingly, this is rejected pretty quickly.

After his idea is shot down, Henry goes into a sort of depression/writer’s block. He and his wife move to a new city in a new country where nobody realizes he is a famous author and he works at a cafe. Then he receives fan mail from a man who just happens to live in the same city as Henry and his wife, a man who includes a snippet of a play featuring character Beatrice and Virgil and asking for help. Intrigued, Henry actually makes notes on the play and heads over to this fan’s address to drop the package off.

Turns out that the fan’s name is also Henry and that he’s a taxidermist. Oh, and Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and a howler monkey that Henry-taxidermist has stuffed in his work room. Really, Henry-taxidermist is just a weird guy all around, but Henry-author spends more and more time with him and with Beatrice and Virgil. Until, you know, there’s a shocking ending because this is Yann Martel, after all.

Okay, so “Beatrice and Virgil” as attracted a lot of vitrol from a lot of big reviewers, but I loved the way Martel wrote it. I thought the language was lovely, and particularly loved the mini-treatise on the merits of fiction in the beginning of the book. I’d already heard that someone called this the “worst book of the decade” (by the way, I don’t think there’s a single thing in that review I agree with), although I was waiting until I finished it to read why, so I sat there reading and thinking “okay, I’m loving it, where does the hating come in?” I continued to love it until 20 or 30 pages before the end of the book, and what destroyed me was not the same thing that the previously-noted review detested.

I hated the ending. At least, I think I did. When I first read the ending, I actually felt sort of numb, wondering what exactly had just happened. The more I talked it over with Rebecca from The Book Lady’s Blog (who had to reread the entire second half of the book after reading the ending – check out her review), the more I felt that I really just didn’t buy the ending. The realizations were too sudden, the responses to those realizations too out of the blue. I was anticipating something totally different that I realize might have been considered derivative, but that I think would have made more sense with the entire book and, frankly, worked better – at least for me. The ending that Martel gave us sort of killed a lot of my enthusiasm for the book, honestly.

Over all I do think it is a worthwhile read, if only because of all of the buzz and dissension it is generating. And, bonus!, it is short and a quick read, so it won’t take you long to determine on which side you fall about whether it is terrible or awesome (or both terrible and awesome).

And if you *do* read it, email me and tell me what you thought of the ending! I want to discuss it with more people!

Buy this book from:
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This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
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15 comments to Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel – Book Review

  • Great review Jen. I think maybe I should do like Rebecca and reread the second half, just to see what happens but I’m just not sure I want to be disappointed all over again!

  • I have a copy and so will at least give it a shot over the summer. I wonder if you have to know the Aeneid well to enjoy the book. I have read Virgil and know who Beatrice is, but I am no Virgil scholar.

  • You’re so right that it’s worth the read if for nothing else than to be able to participate in the conversation. Thanks for being my convo partner on this one!

  • I have almost zero desire to read this book. I loved Life of Pi, but I’m just not feeling this one so far.

  • Amy

    Hmmm… every review I read of this book has me more and more intrigued. Especially knowing that there are people to discuss it with! I might have to cave and pick this up sooner rather than later.

  • Ok, I am refusing to read your review (and anyone else’s for that matter) b/c I’m afraid that I’ll read something that will spoil the book for me. I’ve got in on the shelf and I plan to read it for THIB in June, so until then, reviews are off limits for me. :) I’m assuming that it is like LIFE OF PI in that the less you know about it going in, the better. At least that it what I’m hoping …

    • I think you get more of what is happening in this one earlier, so if you see something you won’t be spoiled as much as in Life Of Pi, but I understand not wanting to know too much.

  • I’m still on the fence about reading this one. I enjoy Martel’s writing overall and I don’t want my affinity for this author to be altered by this book. But then again, there are so many positive and negative reviews about this one, I ache to find out for myself. Egands..what a tough decision!

  • I have been reading more negative reviews than positive. Since I loved Life of Pi very much, I will read this book. Great review!!!

  • Every review makes me want to read this more and more. I’m so interested in what the ending is.

  • I don’t think there is any escaping reading this book, at least for me. Loved Life of Pi, of course. And when I read stuff like this, it just pushes my buttons. I love to love and hate something at the same time. Gets the juices flowing!

  • Every review I’ve read of this book mentions that the ending just doesn’t work for them. What a disappointment.

  • Jen-Girls Gone Reading

    Martel seems to be one of those authors that people love or hate-got to love that at least he is unique! Who else could think of this idea?!?!

    • It seems that a lot of the novel is actually based off of his true experiences – he really did propose a flip book and it really was rejected. From that basis he reworked his manuscript into this.

  • I definitely thought the novel was really good, and enjoyed a good portion of it.. until I reached the ending. This was especially disappointed considering that I really loved “Life of Pi”. However, I’d like to believe that Martel had hidden intentions of writing such an ending, however horrible it is, but I don’t think I’ll be doing a re-read for some months. I still need to recover from the ending.

    Thanks for writing this review – it’s nice reading varying perspectives of the novel.