“You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Annie Hartnett’s Unlikely Animals (Ballantine Books, 2022) is a tenderly crafted work full of heart and quirkiness.  We’re only in June, but I’m close to ready to call it as my favorite for 2022; it’s near perfect.

The novel, set in the fictional Everton, NH, is narrated by the residents of the Maple Street Cemetery. The inhabitants, both those long dead and those recently departed, see all and know all that happens in Everton; they’re just not allowed to meddle in the affairs of the living.  Keeping an eye on their beloved town allows them to hold on to a bit of life.  When the town’s prodigal and magical daughter, Emma Starling, returns, the cemetery is electric with excitement.

Emma had been born with a healing gift, the Charm.  She was expected to heal the hurt, but she returns home a med school dropout with no job and no healing powers.  She couldn’t help her brother, Auggie, when he became addicted to opioids, so she’d stayed away.  Now she’s back, but she can’t save her father, Clive, who is dying from a brain disease that has him hallucinating animals, making rash decisions, and spending his days with the ghost of Ernest Harold Baynes, the real Doctor Dolittle.  But maybe she can help her dad find her childhood best friend, Crystal, a drug addict whose gone missing.

The novel is “both funny and sad, the kind of story we like the best.”  At its heart is the spirit of family, both those we are born into and the ones we make.  It’s wild with a fierce love that bites, and sweet with the tameness of second and third chances. The true story of Harold Baynes, his remarkable wife, and their many animals is woven in such a way that Goldilocks would approve it as “just right.” 

I couldn’t put this hug and a belly laugh of a novel down, and Moses, the Great Pyrenees mix, and Rasputin, the 18k pet fox, left paw prints on my heart that will have me recalling this work with a smile for days to come.

Read this book.

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