Book Review: The Shell Collector


The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr

Goodreads rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I have to agree with the publisher and others that many of these stories are exquisitely crafted. Doerr’s prose is gorgeous; his writing at its best is breathtaking, describing poignant relationships between these characters and the natural world. In my favorite stories, Doerr deals here with the almost-magical, those unexpected and inexplicable occurrences that move these stories from typical themes of human vs. nature into another realm. In my opinion, “The Hunter’s Wife”, “The Shell Collector”, “For A Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story”, and “July Fourth” make this book worth reading. I started out in love with this author’s words. I ended up liking his work well enough.

Like most short story collections, it has its ups and downs for the reader, sometimes a matter of taste. I was struck by about half of the stories in this book. A few of the others had a tendency to overdo the literariness, overdrawing connections and themes, or masking a lack of depth in character with a talent for prose. Lack of depth in character took on a more political element with the last story, which is far too ripe for an easy postcolonial feminist critique. Doerr took a white American man and a black Tanzanian woman and gave them a shameful lack of individuality, wherein Africa + woman = wild and irrational and the West + man = civilized and rational. I have respect and sympathy for writers who attempt to represent other identities and cultural encounters because it is difficult, but Doerr failed inexcusably in his responsibility to avoid harmful stereotypes. “The Caretaker” exhibits the same dangerous tendency for connecting “African” to “wild and uncivilized”; however, that character’s story is at least longer and his struggle further developed. Other female characters exhibit some agency and some individual personality, yet there is still a tendency throughout the book to equate women and nature. Read it with a grain of salt.


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