The Animal Girl: Two Novellas and Three Stories (Yellow Shoe Fiction)
by John Fulton

Published: 2007-09-01
Paperback : 174 pages
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The five heartbreaking and radiant stories in John Fulton's The Animal Girl explore the awkwardness of situations in which grief and erotic love collide. Here are people in extremis, struggling mightily, and often failing, to keep it together. In the Pushcart Prize-winning "Hunters," ...
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( The five heartbreaking and radiant stories in John Fulton's The Animal Girl explore the awkwardness of situations in which grief and erotic love collide. Here are people in extremis, struggling mightily, and often failing, to keep it together. In the Pushcart Prize-winning "Hunters," Fulton contrasts the humorous clumsiness of dating with the grim realities of death in the tale of a middle-aged woman who keeps her cancer a secret when she starts a relationship with an avid hunter. In the novella-length title story, a lonely adolescent girl deals with the recent loss of her mother and the alien presence of her father's new girlfriend by taking out her aggression on her boss and on the animals she cares for in her summer job at a research laboratory. The final story in the collection, "The Sleeping Woman," delves into the inner life of Evelyn, a divorced professional woman who falls in love with Russell, a man whose wife is permanently brain damaged and has been unresponsive for years. The ghostly presence of Russell's wife haunts Evelyn as she discovers how her lover has been scarred by his misfortune and searches for ways they might build a long-term relationship in the wake of personal tragedy.

These powerful stories approach the often sentimentalized subject of romance with tenderness and insight into the heart-worn perspective of characters who have failed at love in the past. In lucid, revelatory prose, Fulton navigates the complexity of both mid-life courtship and adolescent rage with humor and intelligence.

160 pages, 5.5 x 8.5

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Kate answered his personal ad in late summer, soon after she’d been told for the second time that she was dying. She had always thought of herself as shy, not the type even to peruse such ads. But the news had been jolting, if not altogether unexpected, and had allowed her to act outside her old ideas of herself. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. How does the title of the opening story, “Hunters,” reflect and magnify its themes? How are both Charles and Kate hunters? What are they looking for? Are they both really seeking “tenderness without attachments,” as Kate wrote in her personal ad?

2. When Kate is diagnosed with a terminal disease, she decides to pursue a romantic relationship for the first time in years. What do you make of her peculiar way of dealing with her disease? How does her relationship with Charles compare to the relationship between her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend?

3. When Charles discovers that his new girlfriend Kate will soon die of cancer, he decides to end the relationship. He tells her that he doesn’t know her well enough to watch her die. Do you understand his decision? Why does he return to see Kate later? What does he seem to want from her during his visit?

4. At the center of this story is the scene in which Kate embarks on a hunting trip with Charles. She clearly feels ambivalent about the prospect of hunting: “She felt a little strange and improper, going out into the woods to kill things.” At the same time, after missing her first bird, she “wants to shoot more surely the next time.” What fascination does hunting hold for Kate? When she’s killing her bird with her hands, why does “the stupid bird’s determination” enrage her?

5. Where is Kate left at the end of this story? Has her failed relationship with Charles finally given her something of value? Could the relationship be seen in some ways as a success?

6. In “Real Grief,” why does the character of Holly Morris behave so badly at her grandmother’s funeral? Given that Holly Morris is an object of desire to the adolescent boys on her street, why do they want to avoid her at the funeral? What are they frightened of?

7. What do you make of the title of this story? Is there “real” grief in this story or, for that matter, “false” grief?

8. When he looks at Holly Morris’ grandmother in her casket, the narrator “knew exactly what to do, how slowly, quietly to approach, bow my head, look and feel solemn, say a few silent words to myself. This was how to grieve and help my neighbors grieve their loss.” At the end of the story, when Holly is kissing him out in the garage, he wants to flee Holly and stand “above the dead woman, anticipating the proper feelings, and then, looking down at her white, reconstructed face, thinking and feeling them.” What is the narrator learning about grief and loss at this funeral?

9. “The Animal Girl” is structured around two plots. In the first, Leah struggles with the recent loss of her mother and her father’s deepening relationship with his new girlfriend. In the second, Leah develops a crush on her boss at the lab and watches animals die. How are the two plots related? Do you see any relationship between Leah’s experience of death in the lab and her grief for her mother? How does her role as “the animal girl,” the girl who takes care of the animals, compare with her removed and destructive role at home?

10. Why does Leah name one of the dogs in the lab even when Max, her boss, warns her against it? When she develops a relationship to the dog, Ten Bucks, why does she make herself watch the dog die?

11. What fascinates Leah about her boss, Max? In their first long conversation, she begins to pry into his private life, asking about his divorce. Later, she searches through his house, uncovering objects that are particularly embarrassing to Max. She shows an interest in his house and furnishings, which she thinks of as being “stuck in the seventies.” Why do you think Leah would develop a crush on this figure?

12. Do you understand Leah’s hurtful and damaging behavior towards Max? Why does she make this accusation, especially considering that she tells her malicious lie “without contempt for Max, without much feeling at all for Max”? When her father arrives at the police station, he is clearly traumatized by Leah’s lie and she is immediately regretful, even to the point that she finds it “unbearable looking out on the nightmare she was creating.” Nevertheless, does her lie allow her to get something that she needs from her father?

13. At the end of the novella, Leah is upset because she forgets her dead mother’s birthday and because “‘it feels like [her mother is] getting farther and farther away.’” What seems to be Leah’s relationship to her dead mother and to her grief? Why can’t she let go? And what do you make of the final image, the return of Ten Buck’s in Leah’s dream? Has Leah learned something at the end of the story? Is she moving on, recovering from her loss and the resulting anger? Or do the final lines suggest a darker reading of the story?

14. How would you describe Martin and Nancy’s relationship in “A Small Matter”? Is it a healthy relationship, troubled?

15. What are they hoping for in their trip to Florence and what do they find? Do you understand Nancy’s anger towards Martin? Why does she refuse to leave the train car while Martin leaves quickly? Of the two, who makes the more reasonable decision?

16. At the end of the story, how has the relationship changed? Has Nancy truly forgiven Martin? What haunts Martin? Why is he unable to forgive himself? Is there relationship in jeopardy?

17. Discuss the ways in which Evelyn, rather than Jenny, might be seen as “the sleeping woman” referred to in the title. Might she be said to have slept through her life or part of her life? In what ways is she unaware of herself and those around her? Likewise, could Russell be seen as a slumbering or dormant figure?

18. What role does bicycling play in this novella? How does it bring out the larger themes and concerns of the story? What does the fact that Russell doesn’t bike say about him? Finally, discuss the bicycle accident. How is this event pivotal to the story?

19. Do you understand why Margaret and Russell have not decided to take an active role in ending Jenny’s life? How do you feel about this decision?

20. Why does Evelyn want to visit Jenny? Does she learn something about Russell and his wife in this scene? Does this visit in some way make a relationship between Russell and Evelyn more viable?

21. Considering the collection as whole, comment on the ways in which the stories cohere. What themes and patterns seem to reoccur? In some ways, the collection is composed of love stories. Do you notice any similarities in the relationships the stories focus on? What sort of vision of romance do the stories present? What role does grief or loss seem to play in the stories?

22. Why do you think the stories fall in the particular order that they do? Do you see development in the collection as a whole? Do you see any narrative logic in the author’s decision to begin the collection with “Hunters” and end it with “The Sleeping Woman”? Does “The Sleeping Woman” resolve any tensions raised by the stories that come before it?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Dear Readers,

It’s difficult to talk about what inspires my work or why I write what I write. I can safely say, however, that I don’t sit down, decide what to write, and then write it. The novellas and stories in The Animal Girl came slowly over a five-year period. And as with my previous two books, the material seemed to choose me rather than the other way around.

While working on this book, I knew I didn’t want to write the same sort of story—fast-paced, loud, and about family dysfunction—that appeared in my first collection. What’s more, my earlier mode of writing no longer worked for me. Whenever I started in that vein, the story petered out and died on the page within a few days. I got bored. I recognized the same characters making familiar mistakes. In my reading, I was becoming receptive to a different kind of work. Whereas Denis Johnson, early Richard Ford, and Raymond Carver had shaped my first story collection, I was now looking to the quieter, more patient approach I found in Jumpa Lahiri, Amy Bloom, and Alice Monroe’s stories. These writers work with beautiful, if unassuming sentences that gradually coalesce into stories that amount to more than the sum of their parts. That’s what I set out to accomplish in The Animal Girl.

To an extent, these stories come from my own experience, if obliquely and in a way I don’t fully understand. Before I wrote the title novella, for example, I’d been haunted for years by my experience as an adolescent working in a biomedical laboratory in which sheep and dogs were killed for the sake of science. But that story failed every time I tried to write it until I discovered Leah, a teenage girl working in such a lab and at the same time struggling with her mother’s recent death and her father’s new girlfriend. While the experience of the lab was mine, Leah was a mystery to me and fueled my writerly compulsion to explore lives vastly different from my own.

Similarly, I know too well the vulnerability, awkwardness, and excitement of beginning a romantic relationship. But when I set out to write “Hunters,” I had only a vague notion of what this experience might be like for Kate, the central character, a middle-aged, terminally ill woman. What made this love story interesting for me to write is what I hope will make it interesting to read. While Kate is slowly dying and relinquishing her life, she is also absorbed in the humorous and awkward entanglements of new love. What happens when the emotions of love are mixed with those of loss and grief? The story allowed me to see a new way to frame a romance.

The closing novella, “The Sleeping Woman,” also frames a romance with loss. When Evelyn meets Russell, she’s not sure why he hesitates to begin a relationship with her. As the story develops, she learns that Russell is married to a woman who’s been in a vegetative state for three years. While the darkness of this past nearly destroys their relationship, Russell and Evelyn begin to see a way to move forward.

Though all the stories in The Animal Girl explore loss, they also, as Booklist writes about my collection, “offer glimpses into all that is…hopeful and human.”

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Member Reviews

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  "Inspired good discussion"by tripleword (see profile) 02/21/08

Controversial stories. Good character development that inspires discussion.

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