I bought this book such a long time ago because it seemed like everyone had read it. However, I was hesitant to read it because all I knew was that it was about a boy named Pi that was very religious and ended up on a life boat with a tiger. Despite all the hype, I just didn't feel much desire to read 300 pages of religious musings. Even the movie didn't give me any motivation or desire to actually read this. However, I've been putting this book off for so long that I finally decided this was going to be the year (actually, I made that choice last year, too, but this year I was going to stick with it).
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I think it helps a lot that the reader can interpret the book as they want. If they want to focus on the religious aspects, that option exists. However, I was perfectly happy reading it as a survival story about a guy that happens to be religious. Basically, I didn't have to think of religion as the main point of the story. Which is why I find it odd that there appear to be so many articles online asking if the novel would make one believe in God. If one takes Pi at his word, then he simply had the tools and knowledge necessary to "train" a tiger. The novel also offers a different view in its final pages for those less fantastical minded.
The novel actually begins with an author's note which explains how the author came to meet Pi Patel. Basically, from the beginning, the novel plays with the idea of reality as this author's note either is just a part of the novel, or an actual foreword. Kristopher Jansma also plays with this reader expectation in his more recent novel where the author's note is part of the narrative. The novel is a result of interviews with Pi Patel, an almost middle aged Indian man living in Canada. A few short chapters present the author's notes, but the majority of the novel are Pi's words, describing his upbringing, growing up on a zoo, and his developing religious views. I quite enjoyed the snippets about zoo life. Eventually, the family decides to move in response to political developments in India, selling the animals and arranging for visas to Canada.
Unfortunately, the voyage goes horribly wrong, and the ship carrying Patel's family and all the animals goes down, leaving only Pi Patel, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker on the life boat. Obviously, everyone knows at this point that Richard Parker is a tiger - while Martel tries to hide this tidbit until a few days after the wreck, the movie and the book cover have certainly given that away already. The rest of the book is Pi's story of survival as he must quickly develop the skills to feed himself and a 450 pound Bengal tiger while adrift at sea.
Maybe it was due to my hesitance and low expectations, but I really enjoyed this book. I think it nicely balanced the adventure/survival aspects of the story with the leisurely, thoughtful moments. Pi spends over 200 days on the boat, and he must constantly fight not only to survive but against despair, having lost everything. Perhaps it is that part that makes people bring in the God factor as certainly one can wonder about such a strong will to live and survive rather than giving up. However, as fascinating as Pi's story is, that type of human spirit and will to survive is perhaps more than ordinary but there are plenty of true survival stories that show it isn't exceptional or extraordinary. If you are one of the few people that hasn't read this one yet, it actually is worth the read, and I never felt like I was being preached to.