At least 19 major year-end roundups cite the novel as one of 2011’s best, according to Publishers Lunch, an online newsletter that covers the publishing industry. Michael Cader, the site’s founder, surveyed 45 lists by “newspapers, magazines, leading retailers, prominent individual critics and major prize-winners and nominees” for his annual compilation. He adds, in an e-mail, that “it is clear . . . the book has more consensus momentum than any other.”
If you’re looking for Obreht to be your basic war-haunted refugee, smoking French cigarettes in the hallway and muttering about Balkan politics, you’ll walk right past the gregarious author with the blond hair and infectious giggle.
“I realize that a large part of this conversation is just laughter from Tea,” she says at midpoint of a 90-minute conversation last week.
Should we mention here that Obreht is 26 but wrote most of the book when she was 23? That she’s writing in her second language? That she enrolled at the University of Southern California at 16? That she won this year’s Orange Prize, Britain’s award for the best novel published by a woman? That she was a finalist for the National Book Award? That “The Tiger’s Wife” has sold about 90,000 copies in hardcover since its March release and more than 60,000 in paperback since it came out two months ago? That she sold the rights to her next book, as yet unwritten, for more than $500,000, according to industry reports?
“I’ve had this feeling all year that this is not happening to me, like it’s some out-of-body experience,” Obreht says from Ithaca, N.Y., where she lives in the same small apartment she had while attending graduate school at Cornell. “You get connected to the book as this thing that lives inside your computer in your room. And then you go out to the store one day and there it is, living as its own entity.”
While there’s no such thing as the best book of the year — there are too many prizes and honors that tap different books — “The Tiger’s Wife” seems to have an insurmountable lead in terms of widespread acclaim, Cader says. No other book appears on more than 13 lists.
“She keeps so many different stories going in that book, and they’re all so smart,” says Ann Patchett, a former Orange Prize winner whose most recent work, “State of Wonder,” is on a number of the best-of lists, as well. “It’s a really, really ambitious book.”
It’s also a really, really unlikely story to capture the American imagination.
The primary narrative is about Natalia, an idealistic young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country who is on a mercy mission to an orphanage in a neighboring republic after a recent, unnamed war (which is clearly the 1990s conflict that destroyed Yugoslavia).