I own several shares of a cat.
It’s not a weird as it sounds. A friend with a cat travels travels a lot, so the kitty spends a fair amount of time with me. She’s spending this week with me in fact, while her owner is off swimming, running, and cycling hundreds of kilometres at a triathlon training camp. Voluntarily. The cat and I are occupied with much more civilized pursuits, like synchronized napping.
There’s nothing quite like the pleasure of falling asleep with purring cat by your side (and I say that as a person who is extremely allergic). But then, there’s nothing quite like the pleasure of a dog, either. Aside from the walks, and the fetching, and the sweet, sweet, eyes, a dog loves more than anything else on earth. What’s not to like about a creature so overjoyed to see you when you come out of the bathroom it’s like you’ve come back from the dead?
So this seems like a good week to look at Romances with pets in them. Narratively speaking, pets are a smart device: they’re a great way to demonstrate character (for good or bad). But some people write pets better than others, and I thought we might take a look at a few of those.
[Caveat: For this column, I’m going to stick with warm-blooded mammals. Reptiles are interesting but occasionally non-responsive. And while I think birds are lovely to look at and vital to the ecology of any area, yadda yadda… if you’ve ever stood beside an emu, you’d absolutely know that A) birds used to be dinosaurs, and B), they wish they still had the sharp teeth and claws with which to dismember you. Birds are out.]
Nora Roberts often has pets in her books. Real pets, the kinds which give their owners nasty looks when food isn’t forthcoming fast enough (cats), and barf in inconvenient places (dogs). Eve Dallas acquires a cat in Naked in Death, the very first book in the series. She doesn’t mean to. It belongs to a murder victim, and Dallas takes it home to keep it from being put down. It the first hint of tenderness we see from the uber-tough lieutenant. By the end of the book, kitty Galahad is family, and has even saved Eve’s life in return
Roberts has also written horses into many of her books (and fairly well according to an equestrian friend), but my favourite of her many uses of animals was in her recent book The Search. Fiona is a dog trainer, and a canine search and rescue volunteer. She owns three wonderful dogs: Newman, Peck, and Bogart. Simon has just been given a cheerful, out-of-control puppy named Jaws for his habit of chewing everything. It’s not hard to picture how they meet, or why.
I loved the dogs that run through The Search. They’re integral to pretty much every plot and/or character development in the book. We see Fiona train dogs — and their handlers — at all levels, from basic obedience to advanced S&R work. We meet calm dogs and angry dogs, supremely fit dogs and damaged rescues. They are great company AND can be annoying nuisances. They offer unconditional love, acceptance AND sometimes they smell terrible. In short, they’re real dogs, and I loved them, and the book, for it.
Lisa Kleypas has included pets in her work, often to good effect. Zoe, from her recent contemporary novel Dream Lake, has a cat named Byron. Byron’s a real pet, too: spoiled beyond belief, and not above causing trouble for the hero, Alex, when his feline dignity is insulted. But Kleypas’ best character for pets has to be Beatrix Hathaway, from the historical ‘Hathaway Family’ series.
Each book in the series focuses on one member of the Hathaway family (though all of the siblings appear in all of the books; that’s part of the series’ charm). Beatrix is the youngest. Her book is the final title in the series, Love In The Afternoon, but she’s unforgettable from the the first moment she’s introduced. Beatrix is constantly surrounded by animals of all kinds. Ferrets, hedgehogs, goats, mules, horses, dogs, cats; and apparently at one point an elephant. She tends to see society in animal terms, which makes her social life a bit… awkward. Christopher Phelan manages to attract her attention with a scraggly, badly-behaved terrier. He keeps it by being exactly the one man she cannot ignore.
But if I had to pick just one writer to win an ‘Animal Depiction of the Year’ award, I’d have to go with Jennifer Crusie. Pets appear in almost all of her books. Sometimes they’re plot catalysts (Rhett in Agnes and the Hitman; Marleen in Fast Women); sometimes they’re part of character development (Getting Rid of Bradley centres on a heroine with three dogs and a hero who brings home a fourth; the heroine of Anyone But You kicks off her independence by getting a dog); sometimes they’re there because, well, people have pets (there are two cats in Cinderella Deal). In Dogs and Goddesses, the book she co-wrote with Anne Stuart and Lani Dianne Rich, pets are the point.
Dogs and Goddesses is an interesting read/writing experiment. It’s the (mostly) comic story about Kammani, a vengeful Mesopotamian-style goddess determined to take over the modern day world… and the three women (with dogs) who stop her. Each writer created a main character, and wrote from that viewpoint. While undoubtedly each of them made editing passes across sections, the individuals writing voices are clear and distinct. Crusie’s avatar is Shar, a professor who, when the book begins, feels trapped, unhappy and old. None of that is true by the book’s end. Rich created Daisy, the energetic programmer who ends up in the situation because of her selfish mother. Stuart’s voice was Abby, the youngest, who came to town to try to learn about her recently deceased grandmother.
Each of the heroines has a dog: Shar has daschund Wolfie; Daisy is minding her Mom’s Jack Russell terrier Bailey; Abby has a sweet Newfoundland named Bowser. They meet at what they think is a dog-training class, which turns out to be Kammani’s first foray into world domination. Then the dogs begin to talk. Then things really get zany.
As a writing experiment, it’s not entirely successful: some transition scenes are choppy; and not all the character growth is even. But as a story, it’s terrific, especially if you like dogs. As the story progresses, more dogs join in, and because they can speak, each one is truly individual. I loved it, and keep re-reading it when my life need a little boost of puppy love.
If Chris Szego didn’t work stupidly long hours, she’d have a lot of pets. As it is, several shares of a cat will have to do.