Natalia is a young doctor in an unnamed, fictionalized Balkan country. As she travels to a remote area to assist in inoculating children at an orphanage, she is coping with the recent death of her beloved grandfather, who was also a doctor. She tries to learn more about her grandfather and his life through the fantastical stories he left behind, namely the tale of the “deathless man,” whom Natalia’s grandfather encountered several times throughout his life, and one about “the tiger’s wife,” a mysterious young woman who befriended a tiger in the grandfather’s village when he was a child. In the midst of all this, Natalia is also confronted with the bizarre, morbid secrets of the area surrounding the orphanage where she is working.

Obreht certainly has an amazing way with words and the style of magical realism, and many passages in the novel are quite stunning as a result. The fables interwoven into Natalia’s story are especially captivating for their blending of magic into the real world. Unfortunately, this style gets in the way of the book having much substance. The Tiger’s Wife comes dangerously close to not having any plot. I wouldn’t expect such a meditative novel to be action-packed, but the book goes a little too far in the opposite direction. It felt as if absolutely nothing happened over the course of the novel, at least as far as Natalia was concerned. I did not believe that Natalia developed as a person or even learned anything important over the course of the novel; to be frank, I was never entirely sure what she was trying to learn or understand about her grandfather in the first place.

Nearly everything in the novel is connected by the theme of dealing with death and loss, especially in a war-torn region where these things are always present. However, Obreht never seems to have any deep insights about this theme, and the prose, beautiful though it may be, becomes so obscure and convoluted that I found it difficult to draw any conclusions about death, loss, and the author’s thoughts on those matters myself. This thematic hollowness is yet another example of nothing really happening in The Tiger’s Wife, albeit in a more theoretical way. Perhaps this is a characteristic of magical realism that I have yet to understand, but I found it disconcerting and disappointing. Even if a novel is not full of action, I like to learn something or have some more insight after reading it, and that simply did not happen with this book.

I wonder if I might have enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife more if it had been written as a series of loosely connected short stories. The fables of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife were very interesting and beautifully written, but the novel faltered when it shifted to the present and Natalia tried to connect these stories to learning more about her grandfather. The whole idea felt thinly stretched and completely unresolved by the end of the book. While Obreht definitely has a wonderful way with words and imagery, and a lot of potential, her debut novel definitely has the same major flaw I’ve seen with other young writers, and with a lot of so-called literary fiction in general. There is so much focus on the style that the plot is underdeveloped, and even the themes the author means to discuss get lost. In this particular case, I also thought that, for a novel so obviously intended to be “literary,” the characters were very one-dimensional and bland. As mentioned before, I saw practically no development on Natalia’s part over the course of the novel, and all her relationships appeared very superficial, even with the grandfather she claims to have loved and admired so much. Even the grandfather himself remains overly distant and undeveloped by the end of the book, when I’d expected that Natalia would have learned some deeper truths and understood him better at that point.

Basically, this is a book that had a lot of promise when I picked it up, but the potential was simply never fulfilled, at least not for me. I realize that this book has gotten many sparkling reviews and that I am somewhat of a contrary naysayer here. I do feel inspired now to read more established magical realism authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez, if for no other reason than to see what my overall response is to that style of writing. Still, even not having read much in this style, I think it’s way too soon to start counting Obreht as one of its great writers. Her use of language is impressive, but there isn’t quite enough depth to it yet. She’s got the style down, so I hope her future books will focus a little more on substance.