In this astonishingly assured, exquisitely crafted debut collection, Anthony Doerr takes readers from the African coast to the suburbs of Ohio, from sideshow pageantry to harsh wilderness survival, charting a vast and varied emotional landscape. Like the best storytellers, Doerr explores the human condition in all its manifestations: metamorphosis, grief, fractured relationships, and slowly mending hearts. Most dazzling is Doerr's gift for conjuring nature in both its beautiful abundance and crushing power. Some of his characters contend with tremendous hardship; some discover unique gifts; all arc united by their ultimate deference to the mysteries of their respective landscapes.
In "The Hunter's Wife," a hunter's profession is challenged when he learns that his wife can communicate with animal spirits. "For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story" features two sisters in Idaho struggling to come to terms with the very different paths they have chosen, one traveling the globe with a sideshow and one remaining with her mother in their hometown. In "July 4th," a group of wealthy Americans enters a bet with a gang of British sportsmen: the first side to land the largest freshwater fish on each of the continents wins. The title story describes a blind marine biologist who isolates himself in a thatch-roofed kibanda in Kenya, only to be thrust into the spotlight when he accidentally discovers the cure for a fatal disease. Like all of Doerr's stories, it shimmers with beautiful language and transports readers to a perfectly realized, magical world of his own creation. The Shell Collector is an enchanting and imaginative debut by a young writer embarking on an important literary career.
The natural world exerts a powerful, brooding presence in this first collection; it's almost as much a main character as any of the individuals the 26-year-old Doerr records. Nature, in these eight stories, is mysterious and deadly, a wonder of design and of nearly overwhelming power. This delicate balance is evidenced by the title story, about a blind man who spends his days collecting rare and beautiful shell specimens. Self-exiled to the coast of Kenya, he discovers that a certain poisonous snail has the power both to kill and to effect a rapid recovery from malaria. This discovery brings him much attention but little joy, disturbing the carefully ordered universe that he has constructed to manage both his blindness and his temperament. A naturalist's perspective also informs the other stories. In "The Hunter's Wife," Doerr catalogues winter in Montana as "a thousand ladybugs hibernating in an orange ball in a riverbank hollow; a pair of dormant frogs buried in frozen mud." But Doerr can play it funny, too: in "July Fourth," a group of American fishermen endure a hilarious litany of woes in a fishing contest across Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Their troubles include much drinking, few fish and losing their shirts (and all their tackle) to a Belorussian basketball team. The title story could well appear in the next Best American or O. Henry anthologies, and the others make a fine supporting cast. Agent, Wendy Weil. (Jan. 14) Forecast: With blurbs from the likes of Rick Bass, this debut collection should do better than most, especially if reviewers take note. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 14, 2003
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Excerpt from The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
So Many Chances
Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan. The janitor's daughter. Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor's daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who's that? Nobody.
Dorotea's dad is fond of saying this: A man only gets so many chances. He says it now, after dark, in Youngstown, Ohio, as he sits on Dorotea's bed. And says this also: This is a real opportunity for us. His hands open and close. He grabs at air. Dorotea wonders about "us."
Shipbuilding, he says. A man only gets so many chances, he says. We're moving. To the sea. To Maine. Place called Harpswell. Soon as school's out.
Shipbuilding? Dorotea asks.
Mama's all for it, he says. Least I think she is. Who wouldn't be all for it?
Dorotea watches the door shut behind him and thinks that her mother's never been all for anything. That her father has never once owned, rented or mentioned any kind of boat.
She snatches up her world atlas. Studies the markless blue that means Atlantic Ocean. Her eye traces ragged coastlines. Harpswell: a tiny green finger pointing at blue. She tries to imagine ocean and conjures petal-blue water packed with fish gill-to-gill. Imagines herself transformed into Maine Dorotea, barefoot girl with a coconut necklace. New house, new town, new life. Nueva Dorotea. New Dorothy. She holds her breath, counts to twenty.