In Unlikely Animals, Hartnett's irresistible, oddball tragicomedy with heart, characters explore the limits and solidity of friendship and family loyalty, show mistakes and imperfections, and cling to hope.
Emma Starling is a former natural healer whose abilities have disappeared, and she's also a recent med-school dropout. It's not that she couldn't hack medical school--she just didn't go the first day, or the second, or any day after that. Now she's scrabbling to make ends meet in California and drifting a little bit--oh, and she's been telling her parents about fictitious classes she's been attending at the medical school she isn't going to.
Emma returns to small-town New Hampshire to care for her father Clive, who is dying. He's also vividly hallucinating small animals and the speaking specter of a long-dead local naturalist, Ernest Harold Baynes, who is advising Clive about how to spend his final days, sometimes through making daring and eccentric decisions.
When she arrives home, somewhat shamed by her lies; concerned about her parents' marriage, her brother's recent bout with addiction, and her father's health; and without a direction for her future, Emma discovers that her beloved but estranged best friend from high school is missing. The local authorities aren't particularly inclined to search for opioid drug addicts like Crystal--in fact, no one besides Emma and her dad seems to believe that Crystal is still alive.
The many ghosts’ chatter and commentary (always with their born and died dates following their names in parentheses, which I loved) felt like echoes of Lincoln in the Bardo, but the tone of Unlikely Animals is quite different; warm-hearted (yet never cloyingly sweet).
A minor nitpick: the fifth graders in the book seemed far younger to me—their matching outfits, reverting to sucking thumbs after a crisis, free use of each other's last initials, innocence about aspects of the world, and so on—but I adored them.
I was hooked, witnessing Hartnett's delightfully faulted, oddball characters making their way in a messy world. Father and daughter, brother and sister, and mother and father find their way back together after hurting each other, making mistakes, misunderstanding intentions, and losing their individual paths. The characters insist on hope, allow for reinvention, and leave room for the inexplicable and the wondrous.
Hartnett evokes a sense of place so strong, the town felt like a character itself.
Unlikely Animals is sweet and wonderfully strange, and Hartnett employs a light touch and thoughtful approach to addressing potentially heavy, dark issues. This book made me smile over and over.
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Annie Hartnett is also the author of Rabbit Cake.
I received a prepublication digital copy of this book (published April 12) courtesy of Random House Publishing Group: Ballantine Books and NetGalley.