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Life of Pi: Is It Really THAT Good?

Let me first start by saying that I thought Life of Pi was pretty good, but not "A book everyone should read before they die" good. It sat unread on my bookshelf for at least four years. I finally decided to tackle it when I saw that it ranked high on the recently-popular list of top 100 books compiled by David McCandless of Information is Beautiful.

Within the first chapter I could tell I was in trouble. The titular character Pi Patel becomes enraptured by the question of religion. He spends quite a lot of time talking about religious history and concepts, all of which left me (a staunch atheist) cold. Honestly, I'm rolling my eyes just thinking about it. Pi eventually becomes so committed to the concept of religion that he joins and actively participates in three different religions - Christian, Muslim, and Hindu. The dude is hard core. At least he walks the walk.

I liked everything about it aside from the religion. (Which is a little like saying "I liked everything about that parade aside from the assassination of JFK" but whatever.) Pi's family owns and runs a zoo in India, and he spends a lot of time talking very thoughtfully about animals. Pi does not romanticize animals, either for better or for worse. He sees them as they are: amoral in the strictest sense, meaning "having no sense of morality." This can be both good and bad, but he is very clear that even the terms "good" and "bad" are human constructions.

You're in dicey territory when you start contrasting the animal world with the world of human religion. Nevertheless, Life of Pi managed to do this very well, with great delicacy and great honesty. I appreciated that difficult and clear-headed balancing act, and it eventually won me over.

Then Pi finds himself at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger. But surely you are aware of this already. Heck, it's on the cover of the book.

I don't want to spoil the book for you, the way that it had already been spoiled for me. I will say that these two parts (the first third, about Pi's religious life in India, and the remainder of the book, about Pi's life on the raft in the Pacific) are related. In a lesser book, the first third would have been mere set dressing, just something to get you invested in the character of Pi. But Martel has done an excellent job, and the first third of the book strongly informs the remaining two thirds.

Martel also does an amazing job as a writer on many levels. Life of Pi is a very well-constructed book, from the story's overarching structure right down to the nitty gritty details, which Martel gets exactly right. His ability to invoke the shipwreck experience is nothing short of amazing, and his eye for detail is second to none. I might quibble with some of the specifics, but I can't argue with the overall result, which really is worth reading.