Pretty sure that’s a movie quote,* but it’s something my dad used to say a lot. (I miss him.)
I recently finished a book (so here’s your obligatory spoiler alert) that ended up quite different from what I typically read. Unleashed by Cai Emmons started out like a typical realistic fiction piece. A middle-aged California couple (George and Lu) drops their daughter (Pippa) off at college for the first time, the typical rite of passage but infused with some tension because the bond between Lu and Pippa is stronger than most mother-daughter bonds, to the point where even George thinks it’s odd.
Once George and Lu return home from dropping off Pippa, they can’t seem to resume their lives. Without their daughter to unite them, they don’t have much of a bond. George is heavily into his work (he owns a vineyard) and the trappings of his wealthy lifestyle, such as filling his custom-built house with expensive artwork. Lu is more down to earth and spiritual, less fixated on conspicuous consumption. Growing up with parents with such different points of view has led Pippa to be a bit of an oddball in that she connects more easily with animals than people. Case in point: She brings her cat to college.
There were a couple instances in which the book could have followed the typical plot of many novels: George, not sure what to do with himself now that his daughter is gone, has a midlife crisis during which he almost cheats on Lu with a local artist, Marley. Feeling overwhelming guilt, he confesses to Lu what he almost did, and her feelings of insecurity upon the departure of Pippa worsen so much due to this near-miss of infidelity that she becomes depressed and even more disillusioned with her materialistic lifestyle.
Meanwhile, at college, Pippa’s only friend is one of her professors, an eccentric guy named Dar (short for Darwin?) who loves animals as much as she does, and even lets her bring her cat to his lectures. As I was reading, I had the thought that this would go the way of many other novels, and Pippa would begin an affair with her much older professor, but thankfully, this did not happen.
The characters get more and more miserable as the story progresses, and there are news bulletins in which people begin to mysteriously disappear. These disappearances weigh heavily on the minds of Lu and Pippa. Then two things happen almost at the same time: George’s father gets sick, so he has to go to Florida for a while to care for him, and a huge wildfire breaks out where they live, which is prone to wildfires. I know very little about California fires, so it was interesting to read about it. Lu evacuates from their house and takes refuge in a shelter, which she actually enjoys because the communal experience is a nice break from her increasingly dismal, lonely life. George, on the other hand, can’t stand shelters, so it’s good that he’s in Florida. Pippa is safely ensconced at school and doesn’t need to evacuate.
During her time at the shelter, Lu befriends Marley and gains a new perspective on life while she is away from her home and the fire ravages the area. What is the point of having fancy possessions when they are ultimately meaningless? Maybe Pippa has a point, and animals really do know what truly matters. George wants Lu to find something to do with herself now that Pippa is at college, but Lu doesn’t care for any of it. She would rather spend time living in the present and just “being,” which is a noble goal but probably not terribly realistic with a goal-oriented husband like George.
The wildfire worsens, and against common sense and better judgment, Lu ventures out to inspect the damage. Strangely, her and George’s house is the only one in the neighborhood left standing, although everything in it has been destroyed by smoke. By this time in the novel, she has reached a low point and decides to set the house and all its expensive furnishings on fire to finish what nature had started. That’s when the book started to get really weird. Lu runs away, sheds her phone, her clothes, her jewelry, and other markers of her humanity. She stops taking showers and starts eating out of dumpsters.
She has somehow become a dog, and the transformation gives her a newfound happiness and joy at not having to be concerned with the trivial woes of being human. The author does a great job describing Lu’s transition from human to beast. Magical realism! Honestly, it’s not as cheesy and weird as I’ve made it seem here. George and Pippa are obviously worried about Lu, who seems to have gone off the grid completely. They fear she has perished in the fire or disappeared like the others they had been hearing about in the news. Pippa gets Dar the professor to take her back to her parents’ house, as she is in danger of flunking out of college.
Along the way, Pippa becomes a dog as well, and she meets up with Lu, who had found her. Both dogs are now in possession of a confused and flustered Dar. He meets up with Marley, who eventually takes both dogs to George. However, they’re not truly tame dogs. While in George’s possession, they run off into the woods to joyfully commune with nature and likeminded others (the missing people mentioned earlier in the book).
The book brings up some interesting questions about animals versus people. Do animals have souls? Is animal consciousness equal to human consciousness? Do animals have a sort of “personhood”? The author seems to imply that animals are, in a sense, wiser than people. It wasn’t clear if she was implying that animals are equal to or matter as much as people. I don’t like either of those perspectives. Animals do have inherent dignity, which is why they should never be abused or treated badly. However, they are in no way equal to people and should not be given “rights” in the sense that people have rights. I don’t believe that animals have souls in the sense that people do. Yes, a dog can look at you with gooey chocolate eyes and fool you into thinking he has a soul and will live forever, but when we go to heaven, the presence of God will be so all encompassing that petty things like dogs and even relatives and spouses won’t matter. Human souls belong to God. Dogs and cats may go to heaven, but we won’t be aware of them in the same way we’ll be aware of, and in awe of, God. That might be theologically incorrect, but at least that’s the way I understand it.
Bottom line: This book was a surprising read. I’d recommend it if you’re into, or want to try, something involving magical realism.
*Don’t ask me which movie. I have no idea. I’m not into movies.