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The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
By Diana Wagman
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
With The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, her fourth novel, Diana Wagman has written a funny, surprising and disturbing novel, the kind of book that grips you by the throat and doesn't release you until the last page is turned.
The plot is simple. Winnie, resident of a bleak Los Angeles with a sky that's "vacant as a starlet's smile," mother of Lacy, ex-wife of Jonathan (the host of "TV's most popular game show") and daughter of Daisy (a multiple Oscar-winning actress) is stopping to drop off her Puegot at the mechanic on her way to her tennis lesson. These days Winnie feels limp "like an old balloon caught on a fencepost," and her inner mantra is "wait, not yet." While she's waiting on the rental car shuttle, she's kidnapped by Oren, a disturbed young ex-carnival worker who is the keeper of Cookie, a gigantic iguana, and who is also her daughter Lacy's new internet boyfriend. Lacy has invented an elaborate fantasy life for Oren, in which her mother keeps attack dogs at her bedroom door, hires a chauffeur to follow her every move, forces her to wear ugly clothes, and abuses her in a hundred other little ways. Oren is a child of abuse himself, but Cookie the iguana has taught him how to care for who you love, and his aim in kidnapping Winnie is basically to sit her down, have a meaningful and heartfelt conversation about the proper way to treat her daughter, and set her on the right track so that they can all live happily ever after. Oren isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. His plan doesn't take into account that Winnie--being a divorced woman living alone in L.A.--might have taken self-defense classes. She has, and she's a fighter, and the moment Winnie becomes Oren's captive all hell breaks loose.
What I loved about this book is that it functions so well on so many levels. It's a heavily plotted thriller that moves at a rocket pace, it takes brief detours into the disturbing territory of "torture porn," it's a very funny satirical look at life in modern Los Angeles, a frightening and believable character study of a deranged individual, a portrait of divorce, and a statement about the human need for companionship and love. The book manages to feel both self-contained and expansive. It takes place over the course of a single morning and afternoon, but is told from a dozen or so points of view. Perhaps more than anything else, the book functions as a kind of deranged bedtime story warning young daughters about the dangers of anonymous internet communication.
What surprised me most about this book is the quality of the writing. In recent weeks I've stumbled onto a long string of mediocre books, the most recent of which was Sam Pink's Rontel which I reviewed here last week. In that review, I took Mr. Pink to task for his failure to bestow full humanity on his secondary characters. I bring it up here, because when I wrote about generosity in that review, I was talking about precisely what Ms. Wagman accomplishes in Exotic Animals. Ms. Wagman deals with a large cast of characters, and every one of them is fully drawn and compelling, even the ones who could easily have become two-dimensional cliches in the hands of a lesser writer (the kidnapper and the philandering ex-husband, to name two). In Ms. Wegman's world, character development is not code for dry or boring writing. Her details are often funny or dark, her characters aren't always likeable, and she never openly manipulates us.
I would place Exotic Animals in the bizarro fiction category, and compare it to recent efforts I've read from Fiona Maazel and Ryan Boudinot (and even the aforementioned Mr. Pink), but Ms. Wagman's book compares favorably to those authors' efforts for her insightful writing and discernible plot. The book is extremely dark, but for those who don't gravitate toward black and white depictions of good and evil, who don't mind a little blood, guts, animal cruelty and explicit sexuality, there are ample rewards to be found here.
I won't spoil any of the surprises, but I will say that the Cookie the iguana clawing menacingly at the kitchen door acts as a kind of gun placed on the mantle, and that it will be fired during the final act.
Out of 10: 9.5