Friday, August 07, 2009

A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins

"Original" and "ambitious" can mean almost anything in a review, depending on context. Original ideas may be ill-advised, and an ambitious premise can be ineptly executed. But when I call Margaret Hawkins's debut novel, A YEAR OF CATS AND DOGS, original and ambitious, it is the highest praise I can give, because not only has Hawkins produced one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking novels I've read, she's done so using a premise that is utterly fresh and interesting. The first-person narration chronicles Maryanne's spiritual journey concurrently with her midlife crisis (which provides ample comic relief via Maryanne's dry, incisive sense of humor). Maryanne explains how she comes to abdicate from her life once long-term boyfriend Phillip moves out, ending a relationship mainly continued out of habit. Maryanne throws the I Ching, which advises waiting and deepening the stillness within, which she fulfills at first through taking long naps. She then begins breaking long-held rules, challenging her former assumptions, and culling things from her life, including her unfulfilling job at a company that makes collectibles, a neat metaphor for everything cluttering Maryanne's spiritual life, obscuring her passions and purpose. At the same time, her pets, and animals in general, become more and more important to her, and she invests time in caring for her ailing father. Her actions through inaction open up possibilities that her mind and soul are now ready to embrace, and Maryanne finds that she can hear the thoughts of animals, leading to a friendship with a veterinarian who values her skills as a dog whisperer and asks her to plan his mother's funeral.

Each of the sixty-four chapter titles is named for one of the sixty-four possible coin throws by which the I Ching (the Chinese book of changes) is consulted. In less capable hands, this would have been an annoying gimmick, but Hawkins uses the I Ching lessons as steps in Maryanne's spiritual journey, giving her wry observations the weight of age-old wisdom. Maryanne is a likable narrator, an average person seeking meaning in her life and a bit lost in the universe. Her method for finding herself is unorthodox but believable, her reflections on her spiritual development both profound and matter-of-fact, included alongside her recipes for the comfort food she prepares to console everyone around her. Hawkins's clear, lovely prose is a perfect backdrop for the straightforward thoughts of her protagonist, who is never preachy in her spiritual musings. Maryanne is so delightful, and her voice so earnest and witty, that I found myself hoping that she would find what she was looking for.

A YEAR OF CATS AND DOGS is an engaging yet reflective story of a likable woman searching for meaning in her cluttered life, and I highly recommend it.

Available October 1 in hardcover from The Permanent Press. Pre-order from Amazon here.

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