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PET TREATS – another good animal book, but this time for the grownups in the house

 

A YEAR OF CATS AND DOGS, BY MARGARET HAWKINS
Permanent Press
$28
ISBN: 13: 978-1-57962-189-6

 

Review By Joan Schweighardt

 

Those who love both fiction and animals have probably read Carolyn Parkhurst’s THE DOGS OF BABEL and David Wroblewski’s THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE. Both are heart-wrenchingly wonderful stories, and the animals in them (dogs in both cases) are not just peripheral characters but main characters without which neither book could exist. Moreover, in both books the dogs are assigned (by various characters or the authors themselves) special abilities that animal lovers are likely to find more or less credible. In THE DOGS OF BABEL, a professor of linguistics becomes obsessed with teaching his dog, Lorelei, to speak—because Lorelei witnessed his wife’s death and is the only one who knows whether it was an accident or a suicide. In THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, a book full of dogs and dog breeders, all the dogs are exceptional, but Almondine, who becomes caretaker to the mute Edgar of the title, is practically a saint.

Now comes a third novel to join their ranks: A YEAR OF CATS AND DOGS, by Margaret Hawkins. In A YEAR, the middle-age narrator, MaryAnne, decides to “close down” after her boyfriend of ten years leaves. She does this by quitting her job, staying away from her friends and acquaintances, and generally severing all connections to the outside world. What this leaves her with is her cat, Clement, her dog, Bob, and, occasionally, her ailing father.

 

All of this closing down would suggest that nothing much happens in this book. And it’s true that there are not a lot of dramatic highs and lows. The pleasure in the reading comes more from being in MaryAnne’s company and hoping things will work out for her than in marveling at plot twists. She’s fun to hang out with. She’s quirky and funny—and also thoughtful and wise. It’s a pleasure to “get still” with her—and to spend time with Clement and Bob and Gregorie (a dog MaryAnne agrees to dog sit while his owner travels) and some of the other animals we meet during visits to the park. (Her descriptions of the pets in her life are wickedly accurate.) And sure enough, it is in stillness that MaryAnne (and readers) come to be most observant to the fullness of life.

 

For one thing, MaryAnne gains an ability to communicate with animals. This is not ongoing chitchat but a kind of transference of important information that animals may well detect instinctively—like knowing when people are seriously ill. (Why not? Everyone has heard the story of Oscar, the cat in the Rhode Island nursing home who curls up with and comforts patients about to die.) This new-found ability leads her to accept a part-time job working with a vet, and working with the vet leads her into a few new relationships with people—which ultimately lead her back into the world again. In essence, we are with MaryAnne every step of the way as she dissolves one world and creates another—and frankly, her method for dealing with things gone haywire makes so much sense that the book is invaluable for that alone.

Yes, wisdom abounds in this 203-page book. Each short chapter in A YEAR OF CATS AND DOGS corresponds to a heading from the I CHING and is followed by a short philosophical message. The I CHING is not pedantic; these little messages are as much fun to read as fortune cookie advice, and just as practical. Flow like pure water through difficult situations. Also there are several recipes within the pages, not for gourmands but for people like MaryAnne who know how to appreciate (and generate) comfort food. What problem, this lovely book seems to be asking, is so big that a little bit of wisdom, some food shared with the people who are really important in our lives and the love of a few good animals can’t overturn it?

___________________________________________
A YEAR OF CATS AND DOGS is reviewed by Joan Schweighardt, the author of GUDRUN’S TAPESTRY, VIRTUAL SILENCE and other novels. Joan and her husband count themselves lucky to share their lives with Emma, a sweet, even-tempered shepherd/chow mix adopted last year at the age of eight, and Baby Roy, a ten-month old Boxer/lab who exudes so much joy that he is regularly forgiven for his backyard digging excursions.

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