Unlikely Animals – Annie Hartnett

This is, and will stay, a favorite book for me. One of my Goodreads categories is “quirky” and only the best are recognized, because quirky can easily fall into “dorky” or “jerky” or “malarky.” Only the finest of writers can pull off quirky and Hartnett is one. Emma is coming home because her father has a brain disease that will kill him, eventually. Emma Starling was born with a “minor” ability to heal by the laying on of hands. She left her little hometown of Everton, New Hampshire for Pomona College in California, graduated and got into medical school in California. Emma’s father Clive had been a poetry professor in the English Department of nearby Meriden College.

We know early on that Clive started hallucinating, saw cats all over his classroom one day and his ensuing behavior and the scene he caused led to his early retirement. Clive’s wife, Ingrid, a librarian at the college, also oversees the care of the Corbin Mansion and the family lives in the caretaker house. Emma’s brother Auggie is a recovering drug addict. Auggie and Emma are in their early twenties and are not close. A couple of other key characters in this novel are the ghost of Ernest Harold Baynes, known as Harold, a former naturalist who died in 1925 at age 57 and Crystal Nash, Emma’s former best friend, who is missing.

Clive befriends Harold and is desperately looking for Crystal who was like another daughter to the family. No one else sees Harold. Everyone else dismisses Crystal’s disappearance as that of a junkie who didn’t matter and is probably dead. Clive obsessively and persistently puts up flyers and goes door to door looking for her. Clive is a Black Sabbath fan and was formerly in a cover band. He’s lost this and, because of his littering public and private property with flyers and his eccentric behavior when he hallucinates animals, he is barred from a lot of places. Despite this sad fact, Clive’s illness and the ways it makes him behave lend dark humor to the book throughout. Meanwhile, Clive not too long ago had an affair that has caused much pain in his fourth and most successful marriage. Ingrid is struggling with the simultaneous desire to take care of him and to dump him. Emma is furious at him. Auggie is a bit hard to read. He mostly plays video games. That changes.

Everton is culturally odd, with most of its money coming from a gun factory (the Corbins) and much of its fame from Harold, who always had a massive wild animal collection, most notably a fox called the Sprite. Off to one side of town is an extremely private 26000 acre game preserve and complex of millionaire’s homes. In the center of town is the Maple Street Cemetery, which offers some information on the townspeople and its history throughout the book. The author will admit that she channeled Thornton Wilder at some point in her writing, and as a former “Emily” in an eleventh grade production, I’d say this novel is very much a tribute to his play, “Our Town” in several respects.

The problem with a good quirky book is that telling too much of the story also gives away the giggly quirky parts. Unlikely animals is about a family, a community, a fabulous fifth grade class, coming of age, perception versus reality and learning that reality is itself quirky. It’s about a hilarious community theater production, a less hilarious small town drug problem, a mystery (Crystal) and more. Throughout, unbelievably believable excerpts of Harold’s 1920s nature writing and photos of him with Sprite, with bears and of his wife are included to add to the character of the Everton itself. This is a totally complete, totally quirky, very moving and beautifully written and drawn/photographed book. I’ve ordered it already to share with friends and just to have.

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