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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The English Understand Wool

Helen DeWitt

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To purchase The English Understand Wool

Title: The English Understand Wool
Author: Helen DeWitt
Genre: Novella
Written: 2022
Length: 69 pages
Availability: The English Understand Wool - US
The English Understand Wool - UK
The English Understand Wool - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

A- : a lovely, satisfying piece of work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . 10/2022 Connor Harrison
London Rev. of Books . 15/12/2022 David Trotter
The LA Times . 30/9/2022 Charles Arrowsmith
Publishers Weekly A 9/6/2022 .
TLS A+ 14/10/2022 H.C. White
Wall St. Journal A 9/11/2022 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 19/9/2022 Julius Taranto

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s not giving too much away to say that the final twist in this artful tale involves the use of language not to convey meaning, but to establish and maintain a channel of communication. The English Understand Wool is DeWitt’s most Spartan utterance to date." - David Trotter, London Review of Books

  • "In fact, Wool is as much a terrific character study as it is a satire, with Marguerite’s quirks driving both plot and comedy. (...) DeWitt aims at nothing less than expanding readerly consciousness, gesturing toward a world of untapped possibility freed from convention." - Charles Arrowsmith, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A)n explosive rebuke to sensationalistic American publishing in this smart and multilayered story. (...) A showdown with Marguerite and Bethany in a French restaurant is worth the price of admission alone. DeWitt is at the top of her game." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Helen DeWitt’s best and funniest book so far -- quite a feat given the standards set by the rest of her work. It is a heist story, an ethical treatise, a send-up of media culture, a defence of education and an indelibly memorable character portrait. Its pages are rife with wicked pleasures. It incites and rewards re-reading. (...) For those who have never read her before, The English Understand Wool is a terrific crash course in her themes of more than two decades: motherhood, genius, education and money." - Heather Cass White, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) delicious novella (.....) With an impeccably straight face, Ms. DeWitt renders Marguerite’s prim, refined voice, in the process landing superb satirical shots at the publishing industry and the hypocrisies of the current marketplace for trauma narratives. (...) (A)nother of Ms. DeWitt’s classically understated comic jewels." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "The English Understand Wool is a little gift to DeWitt’s (often ardent) readers and an inviting primer for readers new to her. DeWitt is one of our most ingenious writers, a master of the witty fable, and she pulls off her trick here through marvelous specificity of voice and a plot that hums like German machinery." - Julius Taranto, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The slim novella The English Understand Wool is presented in short chapters, narrated by a seventeen-year-old called Marguerite. As we realize, she is apparently writing some form of memoir, as she also includes the occasional missive from a Bethany, her editor at a large New York publishers, commenting on (or rather, worrying about) this work in progress.
       The pages Marguerite is delivering clearly aren't quite what Bethany had in mind; she is particularly disappointed that Marguerite doesn't say much about her feelings. Bethany is big on feelings, maintaining that:

If you don't talk about your feelings there is nothing to engage the reader and keep them turning the pages.
       Eventually, when they get together to discuss the book, she insists: "masking your emotions doesn't work for a book, it really doesn't". Apparently already at the get-go she had suggested the best course would be to employ a ghostwriter, and she urges Marguerite to reconsider that:
Talking to someone might be an easier way to let it out, and then you can leave it to someone else to knock the text into shape, you can just get on with your life.
       As it turns out, Bethany and her publisher have a lot riding on the project: they paid $2.2 million for the North American rights to the book .....
       It's suggested early on already that Marguerite has some sensational story to relate, from recent personal experience. Bethany mentions Marguerite as having been traumatized, and having learned that she'd been: "living a lie", and obviously the publisher wants to cash in big on this. Marguerite, and her book, are, however, clearly not what they expected or hoped for.
       Marguerite's writing is crisply dispassionate. She is very conscious of presentation, in life and now also her writing; she's been properly raised and what she feels at one point would seem to apply throughout:
     I was conscious, above all, of extreme anxiety not to be guilty of mauvais ton.
       Everything must be comme il faut -- yes, including the use of French words where there are no English ones for exactly what she wishes to express. She has been taught that precision matters, and she is very precise -- in her expression and pretty much everything else.
       The English Understand Wool begins with Marguerite describing how, not long ago, her mother had bought a bolt of tweed in Scotland and was then preparing to have it tailored in London, where she and Marguerite were spending six weeks. It was part of her mother's annual pilgrimage: the family lived in Marrakech, but she always spent the Ramadan period abroad -- tacking on two weeks, to give the servants back in Morocco time to recover from the holidays before they had to attend to her again.
       Marguerite clearly grew up in great luxury; money seems never to have been an object. Her mother had very exacting standards, and her approach to life has clearly been well-drilled into Marguerite -- though that has made for what seems to have been a rather odd and isolated upbringing.
       On this most recent London visit, Marguerite had one day gone out for a walk and returned to their hotel -- Claridge's, of course -- only to find a Detective Inspector Braddock in their suite and her mother having disappeared. Braddock's revelations upend her life, as she learns that she has indeed been "living a lie", as Bethany had put it.
       While not in immediate financial straits, Marguerite does realize that money will become an issue. Hence the book deal -- the mega-deal arranged by auction by the literary agent she hired.
       But, as we've seen from the beginning, Bethany doesn't feel she is getting what her company paid for -- presumably, a juicy, weepy tell-all -- which would seem to put Marguerite in quite the bind. The plucky young lady, so properly raised, is however not quite so easily bound; indeed, while always taking great care to avoid that mauvais ton, she simply does things ... by the book -- and that serves her very, very well.
       It makes for a delightful story, an ultra-elegant skewering of the publishing industry at its big-house, sensationalistic-bestseller-seeking worst, taking on (and out) the editors, agents, and lawyers involved with one neat stab.
       Marguerite's writing may lack 'feeling', or at least an expression of emotion, but the tone rings beautifully. Her account is dispassionate but not cold; like her -- and, especially, her mother's -- actions, it is all refined elegance. Comme il faut. Meanwhile, increasingly overwrought Bethany provides a humorous contrast -- with the story then also in no small part a vindication of true authorship, of allowing a writer to do as they see fit, rather than heeding the meddling of an editor (who here would be just as happy -- indeed, happier -- having the story being ghostwritten ...). (Author DeWitt (in)famously also had her ... experiences and issues with editors and publishers with her first novel, The Last Samurai, back in the day.)
       As other-worldly as Marguerite seems and sounds, in many respects (this girl really did not get your usual upbringing), she proves also astonishingly well-grounded and eminently sensible. Appealingly indulgent, The English Understand Wool then is a lovely piece of work -- slight in the best possible way. It's funny, too, and very satisfying (even if that critical unprofessionalism of Marguerite's counter-parties seems simply too implausible -- though in the publishing industry, you never know; expectations can't be too low ...).
       Most enjoyable, and certainly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 September 2022

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The English Understand Wool: Reviews: Helen DeWitt: Other books by Helen DeWitt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Helen DeWitt was born in 1957.

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© 2022-2023 the complete review

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