One chapter book reviews: Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family, chapter seven

When you go through all the trouble of writing a book -- and perhaps you don't have any illusions of grandeur about being the next James Joyce or anything, but even a just-okay book requires an enormous amount of creative energy and personal investment -- it must be tough when you write that book, and then your own PR firm bills it as basically "the Marley & Me of cats." For that reason, I went into my one-chapter reading of Cleo with a certain amount of sympathy for author Helen Brown -- but when you're about to read a book that Cat World calls "An absolute must," well, you can't expect a work of great literary import.

The initial foray into chapter seven did not prove promising, either. For one thing, the chapter I randomly picked was called "Taming the Beast," which is not exactly the most original example of a hyperbolic, pet-related metaphor. Then, below the chapter heading, was this phrase in italics: "A cat tames people when they are ready."

No attribution to that phrase, so I could only assume it's Brown's -- which made me think maybe I was about to read "The Zen of cats who are both terrors and oh-so-lovable," which was not a prospect I was hugely excited about. In spite of the up-front helping of schlock, though, Brown proved herself a capable -- if not insightful -- writer in the first paragraph, with an observation about people and their pets that, if a tad heavy-handed, is pretty adroit:

If they were logical, humans, with practically the entire animal kingdom to choose from, would opt to tame creatures more like themselves for pets ... Monkeys would be an obvious choice.... Instead, humans prefer creatures closely related to their fiercest enemies -- lions and tigers and wolves, who'd rather gnaw their bones than sit at their feet and amuse.

Aside from being an interesting observation, the paragraph also serves as fairly effective foreshadowing for the rest of the chapter -- not that it was a huge cliffhanger: The cat is predictably cute and destructive. But still.

Through the rest of the chapter and from the blurb on the back page, I was able to infer that, beneath the story of the cat, runs a somewhat deeper undercurrent; The family's adoption of the cat is seemingly a coping mechanism to deal with the tragic loss of a son -- and I had to admit, it's a pretty effective device. Without directly focusing on that loss, the kind of tragedy that can easily get bloated, Brown alludes to it, lets it add an element of melancholy to the wacky proceedings. Which is a good thing, because even when she's talking about the cat in a fairly denotative sense, Brown has a soft spot for inflated metaphors. Take this section, from the close of the chapter:

Like most natural disasters, it was over almost as quickly as it started. A house that seconds earlier had resembled a normal, if scruffy, family home was now worthy of relief funds from the UN.

The cat knocked over a vase, is what happened there. If you were wondering.

That kind of benign melodrama is fairly indicative of Brown's bourgeois, mommish preoccupations, the narrowness of whose scope will give way to a pretty slight read from cover to cover, I'm guessing. All the same, Brown shows herself in "Taming the Beast" to be a competent writer who -- if not exactly tackling the world's most pressing social problems -- knows her way, for what it's worth, around a narrative about a family and its zany pet.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte