Published in 2011 to immense acclaim, The Tiger's Wife earned Tea Obreht forms of recognition that few writers will see in their lifetimes--let alone at the age of 25. Yet Obreht was exactly that old when her politically conscious, symbolically rich novel won her a spot on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, a place in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of exceptional fiction writers, and Finalist standing for the National Book Award. Critics were won over by the combination of precise everyday details and legendary figures that is characteristic of Obreht's writing: such elements are drawn together by prose that spans several different time periods, and easily inhabits the consciousnesses of characters that, at times, seem to have little in common.
At its core, Obreht's novel is the story of a young doctor named Natalia, who is dealing with the recent death of her beloved grandfather. In the course of a charitable trip to the small town of Brejevina, Natalia begins to make sense of some of the disparate elements of her grandfather's life: his celebrated career in medicine, his reactions to both everyday events and political disruptions, and his preoccupation with two mysterious figures, the Tiger's Wife and the Deathless Man. Often spurred by Natalia's own perceptions, the novel embarks upon long retrospective sections that show her grandfather's childhood and early medical career--and that occasionally seem closer to folklore than to realistic fiction.
The Tiger's Wife, which is set in an unnamed country in the Balkans, does channel relationships and emotions from Obreht's own life. Yet it would be a mistake to read the book as strictly autobiographical. Obreht herself possesses an advanced degree in the arts (not medicine), her own beloved grandfather was an aviation engineer (not a doctor), and the entire narrative began as "a short story about a tiger, a deaf-mute circus performer and a young boy,” according to a New York Times profile. In fact, by leaving key aspects of the narrative (including Natalia's grandfather) purposely unnamed, Obreht positioned her book as a statement on themes--family, war, and the difficulty of truly understanding another person--that are not tied down to a single time or a single place.
Although the high-profile critical reaction to The Tiger's Wife was overwhelmingly positive, different critics gravitated to different aspects of Obreht's narrative. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times celebrated Obreht's debut as an attempt to both create a unique folkloric world and deliver a pointed statement about the effects of political upheaval and violence. Jessica Ferri of NPR was somewhat quicker to situate The Tiger's Wife within well-established literary genres, noting that the novel rests "securely in the realm of magical realism." Such different responses indicate the merits of Obreht's writing: her style is striking and precise enough to be immediately alluring, but multi-faceted enough to give different readers--upon reflection--radically different things to admire.