The English Understand Wool

Helen DeWitt

Storybook ND series

Readers of Helen DeWitt’s will fall greedily on anything new. Her novella The English Understand Wool exceeds expectations.

John Self, The Critic

A modern amorality play about a 17-year-old girl, the wilder shores of connoisseurship, and the power of false friends

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The English Understand Wool

Fiction by Helen DeWitt

Maman was exigeante—there is no English word—and I had the benefit of her training. Others may not be so fortunate. If some other young girl, with two million dollars at stake, finds this of use I shall count myself justified.

Raised in Marrakech by a French mother and English father, a 17-year-old girl has learned above all to avoid mauvais ton (“bad taste” loses something in the translation). One should not ask servants to wait on one during Ramadan: they must have paid leave while one spends the holy month abroad. One must play the piano; if staying at Claridge’s, one must regrettably install a Clavinova in the suite, so that the necessary hours of practice will not be inflicted on fellow guests. One should cultivate weavers of tweed in the Outer Hebrides but have the cloth made up in London; one should buy linen in Ireland but have it made up by a Thai seamstress in Paris (whose genius has been supported by purchase of suitable premises). All this and much more she has learned, governed by a parent of ferociously lofty standards. But at 17, during the annual Ramadan travels, she finds all assumptions overturned. Will she be able to fend for herself? Will the dictates of good taste suffice when she must deal, singlehanded, with the sharks of New York?

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Portrait of Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt

American writer

Readers of Helen DeWitt’s will fall greedily on anything new. Her novella The English Understand Wool exceeds expectations.

John Self, The Critic

A midsummer’s night dream, a turbulent and amoral comedy, disrupting the sleep with its dodges and masks—altogether a delight.

John Domini, The Brooklyn Rail

DeWitt is the sort of writer to whom engineering – the right mark in the right place, getting the message through – matters as much as exposition.

David Trotter, London Review of Books

As far as I’m concerned, DeWitt can write whatever she wants.

Kaitlin Phillips, Artforum

Weighing in at just 64 pages, Helen DeWitt’s The English Understand Wool is a delight.

Mia Levitin, The Irish Times

That a ghost writer should commute her story – that of a ‘missing child’ raised outside the culture she was born into by imposters – to the kind of neutered copy the masses expect is quite out of the question. I am who I tell you I am, DeWitt seems to be saying, and I will speak for myself in the language of my choosing.

J.W. McCormack, The New Left Review

DeWitt’s mastery of adverbs is deserving of worship.

Molly Young, The New York Times

The English Understand Wool is Helen DeWitt’s best and funniest book so far - quite a feat given the standards set by the rest of her work. It is a heist story, an ethica; treatise, a send-up of media culture, a defence of education and an indelibly memorable character portrait. Its pages are rife with wicked pleasures. It incites and rewards re-reading.

Heather Cass White, The Times Literary Supplement

Prose as sharp as Maman’s tailored clothes.

Literary Review

Step outside of orthodoxy, free the mind. For that insight alone, keeping up with Helen DeWitt remains an essential, invigorating and wickedly pleasurable way to spend your time.

Charles Arrowsmith, Los Angeles Times

When I finished The English Understand Wool in one greedy hour, I felt the immediate return of a distinctly childlike sensation: again! again! again!

Purse Book

DeWitt offers a paean to the lost art of connoisseurship, and also a critique of the way that commercial exploitation flattens anything it does not understand.

The New Yorker

DeWitt is one of our most ingenious writers, a master of the witty fable, and she pulls off her trick here through marvelous specificity of voice and a plot that hums like German machinery.

The Washington Post

DeWitt has plenty of stories to tell about mercenary literary agents, feckless editors and the systematically thwarted ambitions of artists. Her brilliant new novella, The English Understand Wool, is such a saga. Told, like her previous novels, from the point of view of an obsessive personality, this clever little book revolves around the education of seventeen-year-old Marguerite by her French mother on the rules of bon ton. DeWitt has a knack for delivering acutely eccentric ideas with such intense frequency and in a no-nonsense tone that readers become almost persuaded of their unarguable logic.

Spectator World

Brilliant and inimitable Helen DeWitt: patron saint of anyone in the world who has to deal with the crap of those in power who do a terrible job with their power, and who make those who are under their power utterly miserable.

Sheila Heti, Electric Literature

A staggeringly intelligent examination into the nature of truth, love, respect, beauty and trust… This is that rare thing, or merle blanc, as maman might say: a perfect book. I’ve read it four times, which you can do between breakfast and lunch.

Nicola Shulman, The Times Literary Supplement

The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt is, strictly speaking, a book of last year, but it was only this year that it came into my ken and became an obsession. The pleasure begins even before you start reading, because it is, as an object, handsomer and wittier than any other volume on my shelves. A tall, slim, laminated hardback (69 pages divided into 32 sections) with a silver spine, Wayne Thiebaud’s Boston Cremes oozing over the front and a good splash of pink around the title, it looks like one of those school exercise books that you decorate at home with tinfoil and collage. But never judge a book by its cover: this is a brute and savage tale about the art of heartlessness, the folly of editors, verbal precision and mauvais ton. The ending is pure genius: De Witt’s daemon has a will of iron.

Frances Wilson, The Times Literary Supplement

A bright jewel of a book, to light up an afternoon.

Ian Marchant, Church Times