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Erica’s Pick of the Week: Unlikely Animals

It’s fitting that Annie Hartnett was living in a cemetery groundskeeper’s cottage when she began writing her sophomore novel, Unlikely Animals — this quirky, big-hearted novel is narrated by the ghosts of the Maple Street Cemetery. Unable to act but chock-full of opinions, the ghosts take a particular interest in Everton, New Hampshire’s prodigal daughter, Emma Starling, who was born with the ability to magically heal minor ailments.

Now, however, Emma’s “gift” has disappeared, and so has her once-promising medical career, so when she’s summoned back to Everton to take care of her ailing father, Clive, she has little choice but to return. Dying from a rare brain disease, Clive has begun hallucinating small animals (rabbits in his college classroom, rats in his favorite bar) and spending his remaining days with the ghost of a local naturalist. Moreover, he’s obsessed with tracking down Emma’s childhood friend, a drug addict who has seemingly vanished into thin air. Guilt-ridden and a little resentful, Emma agrees to help.

While Emma isn’t particularly excited to be home, the town is delighted to have their golden girl back — especially the ghosts, who are hoping she’ll find all that she’s lost: her gift, her friend, her relationship with her father.

As Emma settles in, tangling with her estranged brother, striking up a flirtation with an old crush, taking a job as the substitute teacher for a truly odd group of fifth graders, she and Clive slowly heal their fractured bond – but it’s honesty, not magic, that helps them reconnect. The Starlings aren’t the only ones in need of a do-over, either. Emma’s arrival sets off a chain of events that brings unexpected truths to light, allowing many of Everton’s denizens the opportunity to forge a new path. 

Unlikely Animals is a deeply funny book. From the sly and snarky dialogue to sublimely absurd plot twists, Hartnett uses humor to soften the difficulties of aging, addiction, and estrangement. Emma’s attempts to be “a C+ substitute”, Clive’s purchase of a tame Russian fox, and a disastrous community theater performance of Titanic! The Musical are played for laughs, but they’re also integral parts of a cleverly intertwined plot. 

Just as essential to the story are the characters – from ghosts to families to foxes, the residents of Everton feel messy, tender, and real. They’re flawed in their own distinct ways, but so vivid and well-drawn that you can’t help but be charmed, and all have a vital role to play. 

At first glance, Unlikely Animals seems like a book about magic, but really, it’s a story about imperfect families, the importance of connection and second chances. With its deft plotting, delightful characters, and expert blend of humor and heart, it feels hopeful and bright, a perfect and perfectly unexpected summer read.  

Annie Hartnett
Photo: © Merissa Conley

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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