Friday, September 03, 2010

The Blessings of the Animals

I have just finished reading a book, The Blessings of the Animals by Katrina Kittle. Interesting story about how I came to have the book: In July, I posted a newspaper column about To Kill A Mockingbird to the Open Salon blog where I keep my columns, and it was selected as an editor's pick and posted on the front page of the site. A kind-hearted publicity manager at HarperCollins read the column, liked it, and wrote to ask if he could send a new novel to me just because. Of course he could.

As I understand it, Kittle wrote the novel while living out her own low-budget State-side version of Eat, Pray, Love, although the plot line is not autobiographical and isn't similar to that story.

This book is about Cami Anderson, a wife, mother and veterinarian with a farm where she keeps a menagerie of animals. Her husband, Bobby, is a chef with a restaurant and is a depressed and sulky sort of man whom she has tip-toed around for most of their married life, lest he fly off the handle or slip into a funk. They raise a teenage daughter and basically get by day to day.

But then Bobby leaves Cami in a sudden outburst of fluctuating emotions, and so begins Cami's search for solid footing. She wonders about the institution of marriage—is it an outdated practice, and how has her failed one affected how her daughter views marriage—she listens to women of an older generation who think she should buck up and take the man back despite his having a girlfriend and she sorts through her men friends who may or may not offer her a future filled with real joy and who may or may not offer just more of the same.

Throughout the story, Cami fosters rescued animals on her farm. She collects an abused thoroughbred, a three-legged cat, a wayward goat, a pregnant donkey and a dog or two. As the animals heal from the damage done to them, she heals as well, mirroring their progress back to wholeness. Cami is in absolute shreds physically and emotionally when she takes possession of the horse she names Moonshot, a skittish muddy wreck of a thing that is skin and bone. By the time the horse has regained its proper form and has learned to trust humans again, Cami has begun to heal from physical wounds, fight off her tendency toward anorexia and rebound from damage done by her husband. There is a scene in which Moonshot, who has stubbornly refused to enter his stall filled with fresh straw and warmth, finally steps into the barn, and his willingness seems to represent a new-found ability to trust. In Cami's life, she has reached that same stage of recovery. When she could have become a bitter divorcé, she becomes instead a loving friend and hopeful lover, wiser, and at times, even grateful her husband left her. His betrayal was a gift, she decides, and she can stop holding her breath, a phrase she uses to describe how she has lived for too many years.

If I have a complaint about The Blessings of the Animals, it's that the author only glances over the husband's depression. She names his symptoms—outbursts of anger, moodiness and excessive drinking—calls hims sad, and stops there. He isn't just sad but chronically depressed, and I think there was room to address his need for serious therapy and maybe even some meds. In fact, I would rather Kittle had woven that condition into the storyline more thoroughly instead of anorexia, which seemed a bit cliche and only lightly addressed anyway. The story is about Cami's healing, not Bobby's, but the author missed an opportunity to fill in some blanks and address a very common condition that is ignored far too often.

Is this a brilliant work of literature? I don't think so. Very few books are, but it's a good story, the characters are believable and the dialogue is natural. I found myself eager for when I could sit down to read it uninterrupted every day until I finished it. My paperback copy even has some water-logged pages from when I tried to read while floating in the pool. That never works, just in case you were wondering. It may seem as if I've given away the entire story here, but there is so much that happens and so many characters to meet as the life of this wounded woman is revealed, and the conclusion is up in the air until the end.

Next up, The Help, since everyone thinks I should read it. I've had it in the stack for some time, so it will be in my bag during my trip to Alaska, along with A Short History of Women. Waiting for me when I return is Tender At the Bone, The Once And Future King and Ford County Stories.


Madame DeFarge said...

Not the sort of book I'd normally turn to, so good to hear the review and realise that there can be more to a book than I would consider. Can't wait to hear about the Alaska trip. Enjoy it!

MmeBenaut said...

I think I'd love the book, being so connected to animals anyway and having been divorced oh, well, a couple of times. I think that my two ex husbands may have been chronically depressed too if those are the symptoms. I know that I tiptoed around one of them for eight years before I worked up the courage to run away.
Unfortunately when I'm upset, I tend to eat and I love food so I've never been a candidate for anexoria. I would love to lose a few kg.
Gosh, the word verification is "hates"!!