R.L. Maizes begins her debut novel, Other People’s Pets, with a near-tragedy. While ice-skating with her inattentive mother, La La has fallen through the lake’s surface: “Her snowsuit inhales icy water and clings to her, weighing her down and threatening to pull her under.” Then her mother disappears, and La La is saved by a dog black as night. (The dark irony of the dog’s color—black, the color of death, not life—pervades the entire novel.) La La’s not actually rescued from the water until an emergency crew arrives, but the barking dog keeps her company, gives her hope, until human helpers can intervene. Like La La’s mother, the diligent dog then disappears. This dangerous, mysterious encounter renders La La an animal empath, forever changing the course of her life. Her shamed mother abandons her—for good—and La La eventually studies to be a veterinarian. However, of course, to propel the novel’s plot, dire oppositional forces must now come into play. While La La’s mother is out of the the picture, her father is ever-present, and so is his penchant for burglary. Posing as a freelance locksmith, Zev teaches La La, only a young girl at the time, how to research and rob the homes of the rich. As a young woman, La La forsakes the family trade for veterinary school, her lifelong dream, but when her father is caught, La La needs quick cash to pay Zev’s lawyer, and so inevitably returns to her childhood training. The events that ensue radically redirect La La’s life (again), and subsequently threaten what she, buried deep within her broken psyche, holds most dear: friends and family, both human and animal.
Other People’s Pets is told in a third person point of view so close to its characters it reads more like first person. In that technical sense, the story often seems like an omniscient dual narrative between La La and Zev. Immersed in La La’s complex mind and body, readers experience the dutiful daughter’s sharp empathetic pain each time she encounters yet another suffering animal. Simultaneously, we become frustrated by La La’s innate inability to truly connect with humans. La La’s “voice” is almost deadpan, almost devoid of human emotion: “It’s been weeks since she’s seen him. Veterinary school keeps her busy. She warms her hands on the ceramic mug, whose fading decal reads WORLD’S BEST DAD.” Though we’d both expect and condone an angry outburst from La La as she learns her father’s been arrested (again), Maizes’s choice is appropriate here, as readers better sense La La’s reluctance, her unending fear and uncertainty brought on by her unorthodox upbringing, through her reserved demeanor. We can see from the start of the novel that La La is more herself, more at home, with pets than people. Very much like Pam Houston’s debut novel, Sight Hound, Maizes’s new writing elucidates the unbreakable bonds humans can form with their pets, or even “other people’s pets”—if they are particularly sensitive or caring, and actually care to be so.
Care is another strong theme. Elissa, La La’s deadbeat mom, never cares to be a mother, though she too loves animals. Zev Fine, La La’s well-meaning but legally misguided father, perhaps cares too much. Incredibly worried for her, he isolates La La, grooms her for a life of criminality, relies on her too heavily for companionship. La La chooses to help her father when he’s arrested, but alienates her future husband in the process. In fact, the few select human connections La La manages to form outside her immediate family are thus jeopardized by Zev’s pending court case. La La’s ongoing struggle to be her own person is effectively explored in flashback, often from Zev’s point of view. The better we understand La La’s past, the better we understand her present choices, which can sometimes seem illogical to the reader. Yet, Maizes keeps readers invested with authentic care and concern for her two main characters, and possibly, though adjacently, even Elissa, whom we only merely glimpse from time to time. Still, Elissa’s final scene leaves everyone reeling, readers and characters alike.
Overall, Other People’s Pets is an absorbing debut novel, one often quite difficult to put down. And even when set aside, if only momentarily, the book continues to resonate: Readers may begin to see the world differently. They may see the animal in the cage anew, may wish more fervently for its freedom. They may want to adopt an unattractive pet who has been callously abandoned, because they can now see that abandonment in a more personalized way. (They may even want to go vegan, like La La.) Animals large and small, domesticated and feral, illuminate this novel’s pages and teach us valuable lessons. The unprecedented events of 2020 have called us all to expand our own sense of humanity and empathy. In Other People’s Pets, R.L. Maizes, with a rich storyline that’s only slightly fantastical, adroitly addresses our own (hyper)reality of fact and fiction, illness and wellness, desperation and hope, love and loss. New fans of Maizes will also enjoy the myriad voices of her short stories captured in her recent collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, also due out in paperback today. Both books are culturally current, personally enriching, and socially conscious reads.
Publication Date: July 14, 2020
Publisher: Celadon Books
Reviewed by Courtney Harler