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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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Introduction

( 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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Excerpt

Hunters

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.

The first time her doctor told her she would die had been two years before. The cancer had started in her left breast and moved to her brain. She’d had a mastectomy and undergone a full course of chemotherapy to no effect. A divorcee, she was close to only a few people: her sixteen-year-old daughter, Melissa, her widowed mother, who was now dead, and one good woman friend, all of whom she’d told. She’d worried about what to do with Melissa, then fourteen, whose father had been out of touch since he’d left them years before. And then, after worrying, weeping, raging, and undergoing the storm of insanity that, by all reports, was supposed to end in acceptance, she learned that her cancer had mysteriously retreated and that she would live. Her doctors hesitated to use the word “cured.” Cancers such as hers were rarely, if ever, cured. Yet they could find no signs of carcinoma cells in her system. She returned to work, got her hair done, went on shopping sprees, and thought about the possibility of reconstructive surgery for her left breast. Even a nipple, her plastic surgeon had informed her, could be convincingly improvised. In trying to explain her restored health to her daughter, her coworkers, her friends, she could find no other word than “cured.” And now, once again, the doctors were telling her she had tumors about the size of peas in her liver and spine. She would die in a matter of months.

The news silenced Kate. This time, she told no one.

She selected his ad because of its unthreatening tone. Others had intimidated her with their loud enthusiasm and confidence: “Young vital fifty-something looking for lady with love for life.” Still others sounded sleazy—“Master in need of pet”—or psychotic, even murderous: “Quiet, mysterious Lone Ranger looking for that special horse to ride into the night.” By contrast, his sounded distinctly meek: “Like books and munching popcorn in front of TV.” He tended toward “shyness with a goofy edge.” He sought “sex, but more, too. Tenderness without attachments.” That caught her eye. She wanted sex. She wanted “tenderness without attachments.” In the years since her diagnosis, she’d kept her maimed body to herself. Now a feeling of bodily coldness and desolation had come over her, and she wanted to be brought back to life. She wanted to be touched—maybe for one night, one week, one month.

Kate’s daughter heard his message on the answering machine first. “There’s a guy on the machine for you,” she said when Kate got home from work. Melissa stood next to her in the kitchen while she played it. “Kate,” a heavy male voice said, “Charles here. I look forward to meeting you. Gotta say I’m just a bit nervous. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never done this before. Not to say that I don’t want to. I do. I’m going on, aren’t I? Sorry. You’ve got other messages to hear, I’m sure.” He paused, and Melissa laughed. Kate wasn’t sure what to make of this halting message, though she liked the fact that he was obviously nervous; his voice was nearly trembling. “I guess I should tell you what I look like. I’m tall and have a mustache. See you on Saturday.”

“A mustache?” Melissa smiled suggestively. “I didn’t know you were looking for someone.”

“I’m not,” Kate said. Her daughter had the wrong idea. She’d assumed Kate was searching for a companion, was healing and moving on with what would be a long life. It wasn’t fair to leave her with false impressions, but Kate couldn’t go through all the tears again. She wanted her privacy for now. “Don’t, please, get any ideas.”

“No ideas,” Melissa said, laughing. “I think it’s great. I think it’s what you should be doing.”

Kate hardly expected to be afraid. She took every precaution. She’d chosen a popular coffee shop, often crowded on Saturday afternoons, which seemed the safest time to meet a stranger. Ann Arbor was hardly a dangerous town. It was clean and wealthy and civic-minded, she reminded herself. It was an especially hot September day, over ninety degrees, but the air conditioning in the café was crisp and bracing. Kate selected a table in a sunny corner, beside two elderly women wearing pastel sweat suits and gleaming white orthopedic tennis shoes; they made Kate feel still safer. One of the silver-haired women was babysitting an infant and kept her hand on a baby carriage, now and then looking down into it with a clownish face. Students sat at other tables and read books. A toddler ran past Kate, its father in pursuit.

She heard him before she saw him. “Are you Kate?”

She stood, and he presented her so quickly with a red carnation that it startled her—the redness of it, the sudden, bright presence of it in her hand—and she giggled.

“I’m Charles,” he said. He wore nice slacks, a button-up shirt, and a blazer; and was suffering—his forehead glistened—from the extremely hot day. His face was thin, his bony nose and cheekbones complex and not immediately attractive. But it was his hair that surprised her most. Thick, gray, nicely combed: it was the hair of a pleasant, not unattractive older man, a man in his fifties, as his ad had said. Kate hadn’t dated for more than six years; her divorce and then her illness had made sure of that. And now, at forty-five, she was shocked to think that this middle-aged man might be her romantic prospect.

When they sat down, Kate noticed the rapid thudding of her heart. She picked up her coffee and watched it tremble in her hand before she took a sip. For some reason, the table was shuddering beneath her. “I’m sorry,” Charles said, putting a hand on his knee to stop it from jiggling. “I’m terrible at handling my nerves. I’m no good at meeting people. It’s not one of my skills.” He took a folded white handkerchief from his back pocket and neatly wiped the sweat from his forehead.

His obvious fear assured Kate that he was harmless and maybe even kind. “I meant to say thank you for the flower.” She looked down at the wilted carnation.

“It’s not very original of me.”

When she picked her coffee up now, her hand was steady. Clearly one of them needed to be calmer. “I liked what you said in your ad about tenderness,” Kate said. “That’s why I called.”

“I’m not usually this adventurous.” He looked over his shoulder and then at her again. “I’m still getting over a divorce. I guess that’s why I’m so jittery about all this.”

Things weren’t going well, Kate knew. And for some reason, she wanted them to go well with this timid man, and so she continued to be brave, to say what she was thinking. “‘Tenderness without attachments.’ That sounded nice. None of the other ads talked about that. I thought that was original.”

He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief again. “I just don’t want anything serious. But I don’t want it to feel, you know, like just an exchange of . . . of . . .”

“Bodies?” Kate said. He sat back in his chair, as if struck, and she felt her face deepen in color. The thought that they were here, in large part, for the prospect of sex was out on the table now. It was a bold and raw motive, for which neither of them, middle-aged and awkward, seemed well suited. But the awkwardness and shame were refreshing, too; Kate hadn’t blushed in years.

“I guess,” he said. He patted his mustache gently, as if drawing composure from it. “Not that we have to ever get there. We might just become friends. We might just enjoy each other’s company.”

“Sure,” she said, though in fact she felt an unexpected pang of rejection. Was this skittish man already running from her bed?

She changed the subject then, telling him about her job as a loan officer, a serious job that had always suited her rather too serious character; her love for fresh food and cooking; her sixteen-year-old daughter, who right now was a little too absorbed in her boyfriend. “I wish my kid would fall in love,” Charles said, smiling. “He’s angry. His mother gave him up when she gave me up. I understand the anger. I’m angry, too. But there’s something mean in him that I’d never seen before this.” Ryan, Charles’s son, had a mohawk that changed colors—purple, yellow, blue—at least once a month and a lizard tattoo on his forearm. Charles owned an office furniture and supply store. “It sounds boring, I know. But I actually sort of enjoy it.”

It did sound boring to Kate, who was much more interested to learn that Charles enjoyed hunting. It hardly seemed like something this concerned father and furniture salesman would do. “You kill things?” Kate asked. “You enjoy it?”

He confessed that he did, though he didn’t hunt large game. “Deer and elk are beautiful animals and too much of a mess. Field dressing a deer can take the better part of a morning.”

“Field dressing?” she asked.

“Gutting them, removing the organs. You need to do that soon after a kill, before you cure and slaughter it. It’s a real mess. I used to hunt large game as a boy with my dad. It’s not for me anymore.” He shook his head in a way that allowed Kate to picture this mess: the blood, the entrails, the carcass. “I just hunt upland birds now: pheasant, woodcocks, grouse. It’s not so much the killing as it is the stalk, the chase. Being out in the open air, seeing the land.”

“But you do kill them?”

He nodded. “I suppose you’re against that sort of thing.”

Kate thought about it a moment. “Not really. Though I’d say I’m not for it either. I find it odd.”

Two hours later, when they walked out of the café, a hot wind was blowing down Washington Street, and the concrete beneath her felt as if it were baking through her thin-soled shoes. She felt lightheaded, buzzed from three cups of coffee, and nervous about what would happen next, how they’d say good-bye. Would they kiss? She couldn’t imagine it and was relieved when he reached out with his sweaty hand and shook hers softly. “I enjoyed meeting you,” he said. A train of running children shot between them, and they both took a step back. She half thought he’d turn away then and walk off, and she’d have to wonder why he put her through two hours of conversation about his divorce, his son, about slaughtering and field dressing deer. But then he asked her if he could call again, and she couldn’t—hard as she tried—suppress a smile and the obvious eagerness in her voice when she said, “I’d like that.”

Kate didn’t feel sick yet. She’d felt healthy now for months, light of body, energetic, strong. She tried not to think of the fatigue and pain to come. But the week the heat wave lifted and the first cooler days of fall arrived, Kate succumbed to fear.

She’d been approving a loan for a pregnant couple when it happened. The woman wore a purple maternity dress that said “Mommy” at the place where her belly showed most. She carried her weight with an intimidating, ungraceful physicality, and her face glowed with acne and oil and a smile that was almost aggressive. The woman’s scent of flowers and sweat filled Kate’s small office, the air suddenly feeling close and tropical. She kept saying “we” in a way that left Kate feeling bereft and excluded. “We’re looking forward to our first home. This is just what we need right now.” The woman looked down at the roundness where she had just placed her hands. “Four more months,” she said. The thoughts came to Kate before she could anticipate them. Would she be bedridden by then? Would she be gone? Could she already feel the beginning of fatigue? Would the symptoms she’d experienced last time—the headaches, the facial paralysis, the double vision—begin that very day?

Claiming illness, she left work early that afternoon only to discover Melissa and Mark in her bathroom. The shower had been on, which was no doubt why they hadn’t heard Kate climbing the stairs. When she walked into her room, Kate saw steam curling out the open bathroom door before she saw her sixteen-year-old daughter, naked save for the pink strip of her Calvin Klein panties, balancing on her knees and giving pleasure with too much skill, too much expertise, to her standing boyfriend. She took it in for a moment: the bodies moving together in practiced motion, the flayed brown and white of tan lines, her daughter’s breasts, mouth, and hands, the curve of her back. “Melissa,” Kate said.

Melissa stopped, and Mark grabbed his crotch and turned his shuddering backside to Kate. “Mom!” Melissa’s naked body lunged at the door and slammed it in Kate’s face. “I can’t believe you, Mom!”

“Put your clothes on now!” Kate shouted at the door.

“We can’t,” Melissa said. “Our clothes are all out there.”

Kate turned then and noticed the storm-strewn boxer shorts, Levis, soiled white socks, Melissa’s blouse and bra, even her pink Keds. Why were Melissa’s shoes on Kate’s bed? She picked them up, tossed them to the floor, and then started crying. She hardly knew why, though it had something to do with the pregnant woman and the surprise of her daughter, her body so womanly, full in the hips and breasts, more beautiful than Kate had ever been, engaged, absorbed in what Kate could only think of now as an adult activity. Her loss of control left her feeling even angrier at Melissa. “I want to talk to you both downstairs in five minutes!” she shouted.

After doing her best to cover up all signs of tears, Kate sat across from Melissa and Mark in the living room. They had a messy, post-sex look about them, their hair mussed and their clothes, if secure and in place, somehow looser on their bodies. “I don’t know what to say,” Kate began.

“We’re being careful,” Melissa said. “I’m on the pill, Mom. I’ve had my first pelvic exam. We’ve both been tested. I’m doing everything I should be doing.”

“You were in my bathroom,” Kate said. These words made Mark, a tall, good-looking boy, broad in the shoulders and not usually meek, look down at the floor.

“You have the large shower,” Melissa said. “We were going to clean things up. You weren’t supposed to be home yet.”

“Your clothes were all over my bed. Your shoes were on my bed.”

Melissa smirked and flashed her blue eyes at Kate. This was her most charming and practiced gesture, and though it usually made Kate fall instantly in love with her daughter, she resisted it now. “Well,” Melissa said, “we were in a hurry.”

Kate felt her face go red. “You should have been studying.”

“We still have time to study,” Melissa said.

“You need all the time you can get. You have to apply to schools and prepare for the college boards.”

“That’s next year,” Melissa said.

Kate took a deep breath. She was about to do something she had been afraid to do for months. “I don’t think what you did was wrong. I’m more concerned about the irresponsibility of neglecting the rest of life so that you could do . . .” Kate couldn’t name what they’d done, nor could she keep pretending to herself that it didn’t bother her. How could her child, her teenaged daughter, take on this responsibility? How could she lie on her back in a doctor’s office with her legs in stirrups so that she could, as safely as possible, give herself to a boy? A boy who made her lose so much presence of mind that she would throw her dirty shoes on her mother’s bed, use her shower, and maybe even afterwards use her bed. Kate had terrifying visions of what would become of these two after she was gone. They’d end up in ten months with a baby and stuck in subsidized housing somewhere. It was possible. But what frightened Kate most was the fact that she herself was responsible for pushing these kids—and they certainly were no more than kids—into each other’s arms with her own desperation, her own intensity.

Two years before, when Kate thought she was dying for the first time, she’d panicked. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t stand the aloneness, the waiting, the nights of insomnia. Kate clung to Melissa and made her go everywhere with her—the doctor’s office, the grocery store, the post office, the accountant’s. It didn’t take long for Melissa to disappear. She joined the swim team, the debate club, and the school newspaper. In the meantime, Kate kept dying. She suffered from headaches, double vision, loss of balance so extreme that she’d have to lean against the nearest wall to stay upright. Kate saw Melissa only in the late evenings when she’d sit at the kitchen table, her hair stringy from chlorine, wolfing down cereal, toast, and cookies. And so when Kate woke at night and the hours alone in the dark became intolerable, she walked down the hallway to her daughter’s room, gently moved aside the large stuffed bear her then fourteen-year-old child slept with, and got into her bed. She tried not to cry, but failed. Melissa said nothing, just stiffened and moved to the edge. At first light, Kate quietly got up and returned to her room.

Kate slept with her daughter as often as three times a week. She slept with her until one night she opened the door and saw in the dimness a boy next to Melissa. She had met Mark only once before then and knew that he was on the swim team and played tenor saxophone for Central High’s jazz ensemble. His thick curly hair was on the pillow, his muscular back was turned to her, and his bare arm was wrapped around Melissa, protecting her from her sick mother.

After that, Kate stayed away from her daughter’s room. She might have put an end to Mark’s sleepovers if she hadn’t been sick and, later, if Melissa and Mark hadn’t cooled off soon after the cancer disappeared. Mark no longer slept over, so far as Kate knew. But her cancer was back, and she could only expect the worst when her daughter found out. So she was finally going to put her foot down, never mind that what bothered her most was not so much their having sex—she had assumed as much before this afternoon—as her having seen the sex, and having seen Melissa’s dirty tennis shoes—that image returned now and made her wince—on her clean bed. Thrown, tossed with no concern whatever for her mother. “You two need to see less of each other,” she said. “It would be better for both of you. You can go out on Friday and Saturday nights. But weekday afternoons and nights are off limits. Got it?”

Melissa looked at Kate with childish fury. “No,” she said.

“Don’t say no to me.” Kate hardly recognized herself. She’d always been tolerant and open with her daughter. She’d always laid out options, pros and cons, and let her daughter make her own decisions.

Melissa shook her head. “No. I’m saying no. We’re not going to do it.” She stood, took Mark forcefully by the hand, and led him up to her bedroom, where she slammed the door. Kate should have done something. She should have stood at the foot of the stairs and yelled. She should have gone up there and shouted through the door. But she was too tired to go on playing the role of parent. In any case, she wouldn’t be a parent much longer.

Her second meeting with Charles took place at 7 A.M. at a small restaurant across from the university hospital’s cancer center, where, among other procedures, she’d had her mammogram done seven times in one sitting. Kate had wanted to suggest another breakfast place, but she kept quiet. She didn’t want to have to explain herself. Not yet. A line of scarlet sunrise had just begun to wipe out the last few morning stars when they stepped out of the cold. All the same, waiting to be seated, Kate felt the presence of the black glass façade across the street and couldn’t help remembering the pink walls of the waiting booth where she’d spent almost eight hours with plastic pads stuck to her breasts. Only a floor above the mammogram clinic, she would lie on her back weeks later while a physician’s assistant slid a needle deep between two upper lumbar vertebrae to draw out the spinal fluid in which, it turned out, carcinoma cells were actively dividing. She was told to expect double vision, speech impairment, dizziness, partial paralysis, and any number of random sensations due to the tumor that was growing in her brain. And then there was the chemotherapy, the woman named Meg who’d died in the waiting room while reading Vogue. It was hardly an appropriate magazine for a cancer ward, Kate had been thinking when Meg slumped over in her chair and stopped breathing. Kate was amazed at her calm as she broke Meg’s fall, sat her upright, and held her in her chair until someone arrived and took her away.

Once she and Charles sat across from each other in a booth, she was able to forget the hospital. A sheet of Levolor-sliced sun fell over their table, and billows of steam rose from their coffee cups in the brightness. He was jumpy, tapping his fingers against his cup, then running them through his hair. She was already getting used to the angularity of his face and finding it vaguely attractive. His blue eyes she noticed for the first time—faint, shallow—after the waitress set their menus down. “Aren’t you nervous?” he asked.

She wasn’t, and she told him so.

“I am,” he said, and she could hear it in his voice. “Doesn’t it bother you to see a grown man afraid?”

“Apparently not.” She laughed, reached across the table, and took his hand for the first time. But when he didn’t loosen to her touch, she let him go.

The next week, she dropped into his furniture store just before closing. Charles seemed to have a great deal more courage as he walked briskly through the endless rows of desks, filing cabinets, and computer tables to meet her. “Welcome,” he said, smiling, at ease in his suit and tie. He led her around and made her sit in multiple styles of waiting-room chairs and ergonomically designed stools for typists and receptionists. The repetition and sameness of objects—chair after chair after chair—spooked her a little. “You think it’s terrible,” he said. “What I do.”

She denied it at first. Then said, “It does seem a little . . . lonely. All these human objects without the humans.”

“You want to see lonely?” he said. He walked her into the back: a gray, dimly lit storage facility, in the middle of which stood a forklift surrounded by towers of boxes. The place was remarkably vacant of warmth and life, and a soft roar of wind and emptiness seemed to hum at its center.

She admired his comfort here, his sense of dominion. “I don’t mind it. It’s quiet. It’s like going to the park. It’s an escape.”

Later that week they strolled through the arboretum, where the trees had begun to turn and where they lingered beside a glassy, shallow stretch of the Huron River, the pink, unmarked evening sky laid out over its mirror. Two hippie kids in loose clothing sat on a log, holding each other, kissing, giggling. A muddy-colored dog with a red handkerchief knotted around its neck leapt into the river and began drinking. When Kate took Charles’s hand and pulled herself close to him, he was trembling. And somehow, just after Kate kissed his cheek lightly, she caught it, too; a rush of fear shook her. She was breathing shallowly when Charles bent down and kissed her on the lips. “I hope that was all right,” he said.

When she nodded, he seemed immensely relieved, his step lighter now as they walked hand in hand, swinging their linked arms, up a dirt path until they came to a clearing in the trees. Startled, a deer sprinted through the high grass, dove into the trees, and was gone. In the orange evening light, Charles looked larger, less meek, and Kate couldn’t help wondering what this gentle man would be like with a gun. “What’s it like to kill something?” she asked.

“You might not like me as much if I told you the truth.”

Kate laughed and squeezed his hand. “I promise I’ll still like you.”

“OK,” Charles said. “It’s thrilling. It’s why you go out there. It’s the fun part.”

“It’s fun to kill?” If she didn’t like him less, it still wasn’t the most pleasant answer, nor one she understood.

“Perhaps ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the right word.”

On their walk back, the temperature dropped sharply, and Kate was shivering so violently that she had to wonder if her vulnerability to the cold had to do with her illness. Was she weaker than she’d suspected? When they parked in front of Kate’s house, she kissed him once, but pulled away when he wanted to continue. “I should tell you something,” she said, still shivering. The dark inside the car, the fact that she could see only the outline of his face, made it easier to lie to him. “I’m recovering from cancer. Breast,” she said, stopping so that odd word stood alone. “Recovered, I mean. I wouldn’t mention it, but I need to tell you that I have a scar.”

“A scar?” he said.

“I had a mastectomy. My left breast.” She hated the feeling of shame that accompanied what she had just said. It was merely a fact, and she should have had the presence of mind to treat it as such.

There was a pause before he said, “I’m sorry.”

Kate couldn’t see the expression on his face, but she sensed that something was different between them. An ease, an excitement was gone. “Does that change things?” she asked.

Again, he took time in answering. “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?” The anger in her voice half surprised her. She didn’t know him well enough to be angry with him.

“It’s just that . . .” He stopped himself and reformulated his thought. “This was supposed to be a light thing. No commitment. Nothing serious.”

“What does this have to do with commitment?”

“I don’t know,” he said. Then he bumbled out, “It seems serious. It seems . . .”

“All right,” she said. She got out of his car, and before she’d closed the front door behind her, she heard him say, “I’ll call you.”

Inside, she found Melissa and Mark on the couch watching a movie in the dark. It was a school night, and they were openly defying the rule she’d set down. She turned the lights on, and they looked at her, squinting in the brightness. “Mark has to leave now.” Her anger was too pronounced, too obviously out of proportion. Their response to it was to remain frozen in each other’s arms. Kate wanted to throw something at them—a shoe, a book, even her purse would have worked. “I said now,” Kate said. Mark finally sat up and rushed to put his shoes on.

“Did something happen on your date?” Melissa asked.

“I didn’t have a date.”

She expected a fight from Melissa. But instead her daughter sat up slowly and kept her

eyes cautiously on Kate. view abbreviated excerpt only...

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.”

Book Club Recommendations

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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