When the early reviews for a book are polarizing (it’s love or hate, little in between), color me intrigued. Animal — a book with the tagline, “I am depraved. I hope you like me.” is about as far outside my comfort zone as a book can get, yet I couldn’t resist, and now that I’ve read Lisa Taddeo’s first foray into fiction, I stand with those who say this book is excellent. Not to say that Animal is easily digestible fare.
Animal begins with a death. The death of a lover via suicide in a public space (a restaurant). The specifics are given in the goriest of details. As all details in this book are supplied. But the gore here is not gratuitous. At least, a strong case can be made that it is not. And if you will bear with me, you will discover why. The man who dies at his own hand is Vic. Vic is the (much) older (married with children) lover (and boss) of our main character Joan. Joan knows how to use her sexuality as a weapon, but that’s pretty much all she’s got confidence in. And while her sexuality is a weapon, it is one of self-defense developed in response to a never-ending series of abuse and “small rapes” suffered at the hands of men. We will learn more about Joan, but as Vic ends his life, Joan is having dinner with the obsession-of-her-life Big Sky. Kinda like Carrie’s Mr. Big. Big Sky (who’s also married and has a kid) promptly dumps Joan after the evening’s events. And Joan flees New York for Los Angeles in search of Alice. It is unclear who Alice is. It is unclear what Joan plans to do once she finds her, but Joan is a ticking time bomb who feels more and more that the rage she’s been turning against herself needs somewhere else to go.
This is where I come back to why the graphic depictions of violence, abuse, child abuse, rape, and a miscarriage (I may forget something here, but if you’re shuddering at any of those, you’ve been trigger warned) are not gratuitous but part of the author’s message. It’s a way for Joan (a victim of abuse) to reclaim her agency. Joan is an unlikable character who sees her world of violence as it is — in violent detail. We (hopefully) do not live in Joan’s world, but the “small rapes” Joan experiences cover a multitude of ways women’s vulnerabilities are taken advantage of by men each day. Joan is unlikable, but so are many male fictional characters we idolize (and many IRL men, too). But doesn’t this raise an intriguing question? Have we been socialized to like unlikable men (bad boys, anyone?) and balk at unlikable women? Lisa Taddeo highlights this hypocrisy with absolute mastery.
Animal is unapologetic and not for everyone (again, the trigger warnings). Still, for those who can face the graphicness and venture into the deplorable depths of human nature, this is a brilliant read that will stay with you long after the final page.
Published: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date: July 22nd 2021