Book Review Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett

By Debbie Stone and Gini Cunningham

Gini: Hmmm… Did I like this book? On one hand a combination of chatting voices coming from those lying buried beneath tombstones, a demanding mother, an obsessive father with real and imaginary friends, a Golden Child daughter, later smudged then re-shined to magnificence, a drug addicted son, pets Moses (a dog) and Rasputin (a fox), and miscellaneous colorful characters blended in, what more could a reader demand? On the other hand, tying all of this (and more) into a tidy bundle left me in my “I hate it when everything is bound up in an impossibly perfect” screech. Then again, all of the loose, mysterious ends had to get wrapped together or frustration might have enveloped me.

The story weaves in and out of all of the above and includes a missing friend, illnesses cured, marriages evaluated and re-evaluated, and dreams accomplished or tossed aside as worthless as the book winds, rewinds, and unwinds. Daughter Emma has a unique knack for curing the ill. Always viewed as the best and treated that way too, the medical field appears ideal. When entry time arrives, however, she finds the overwhelming responsibility too much to tolerate and abandons her mother’s dream and becomes a teacher. Son Auggie lives beneath the cloud of his sister’s excellence and is periodically reminded of his inadequacies. Is it any wonder that he turns to drugs and spends much of the book in rehab? Dad Clive is rejected from his job; Mom Ingrid disappears into her own self-centered world; the book plows on.

To insert a twist, friend Crystal inexplicably vanishes, Clive becomes the sole person who does not give up on the idea that she is alive. His unceasing devotion to placing posters on every tree in the vicinity eventually unites the family as the search unravels. Along the way they are assisted by bears, deer, and various wild animals, which may seem odd but somehow this jumble meets to draw this story to conclusion. I question that it is a satisfactory conclusion but at the same time, I did not want more rambling.

Debbie:  When Gini asked (cornered me in my kitchen after a few glasses of wine) me to do a book column with her a few years ago, the plan had a she said/she said premise where we might occasionally have differing views on a book. Guess what? Now is that time!  Unlikely Animals is a delight! A feel-good book that makes me happy is a perfect summer read.

Let me start with a quote from the narrators of the book – the people in the town cemetery. Yes, the cemetery residents, the ghosts. A book with a Greek Chorus watching over the players and explaining what’s happening is one of my favorite novel formats. The residents began the book by stating, “It was a source of entertainment of Maple Street Cemetery. Both funny and sad, the kind of story we like to host.” Exactly! It is a story both funny and sad – which is life.

The story is unique and funny and maybe a little ridiculous, but aren’t all families a little ridiculous? I know mine is – as I said before, that’s life: a funny, sad, ridiculous, delightful ride. And that describes the book to a tea (or is it tee?). Yes, the novel does touch on some serious topics like opioid addiction, depression, and dying, but it does so in a quirky and at the end, heartening and moving way.

One does have to suspend some belief, of course. I mean ghosts in the town cemetery narrating?? but the book is part “Magical Realism” so if that is something you cannot do, interrupt your belief for a few hours of great reading, then this book might not work for you. For me, though, it presents a wonderful story. Grab an iced tea and take a couple of hours on your patio and you’ll find this just as enjoyable as I did.

Gini: Voila! One reason writing with a partner is so exhilarating. As I read Debbie’s review I pondered if we had read the same book. We did. We each viewed it through a personal lens. A quote that speaks to me, coming from a deceased, “A delay in death is a miracle” and so it is for Clive who hangs on to life to create a meaningful end to it through the tales of Unlikely Animals.