Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Cats & Daughters by Helen Brown

Reviewed by Jeanne

I first encountered Helen Brown with Cleo, the Cat Who Mended a Family.  Helen hadn’t wanted the scrawny black kitten, but her nine year old son Sam had begged and she’d given in.  Tragically, Sam was killed before they ever got the kitten, leaving behind a heart-broken mother, father, and younger brother. Helen reluctantly accepted Cleo after Sam's death as the kitten had been a connection with Sam, and had helped Helen to learn to live again through her grief and breakup of her marriage.  I know this all sounds dreadfully depressing, but that’s what I found so amazing about the book: while Helen didn’t minimize her pain, somehow I found the book to be less a tear-jerker and more of a warm, funny memoir that nevertheless touched the heart.

When I learned that Helen had a new book out, this one about dealing with a headstrong daughter, fighting breast cancer, and adopting a new cat, I was hesitant.  Cleo the cat and Cleo the book were unique; I was uncertain that another book could be anywhere near as good as that one.

I really should be used to being wrong by now.  I am so frequently.

As the book begins, Helen is ready to move her family to another house, one in a neighborhood where no one is quite so keen on keeping up with the Joneses and where lawn mowing wasn’t a near religion. Also, she finds herself stopping at Cleo’s grave for a chat, and while she knows she’s perfectly sane she does understand that it looks a tad peculiar.  She discovers Shirley—yes, the house has a nameplate, an unattractive brass one affixed to the wall and not removable—and feels that they are soul mates. They’re both of a certain age, a bit past their prime, and possibly structurally unsound. Obviously, they’re meant for each other.  Helen’s husband Phillip is a bit less enthused, but somehow they end up with Shirley, for better or for worse. The house is going to need a lot of renovation, but just as they get started Helen’s daughter Lydia throws her a curve by announcing that she wants to go to Sri Lanka, possibly to become a Buddhist nun. Helen is shocked: has Lydia somehow failed to notice that there’s a civil war going on in Sri Lanka? Has she forgotten she’s just won an impressive scholarship?  What about her plans to get her degree? But not only is Lydia descended from a long line of strong, independent women, she’s a Taurus, born in the Year of the Ox, at the Hour of the Ox—triple stubbornness. Then Helen is diagnosed with breast cancer and is facing an uncertain future. As Helen struggles to cope, she discovers love at first sight is real. She’d never believed it was, especially not between a middle-aged woman and a Siamese kitten, but one look into those blue eyes and she’s a goner.

Helen says that someone told her your last cat picks your next for you. If this is so, she wonders, what on Earth was Cleo thinking? Jonah is nothing like Cleo and brings his own form of chaos into an already disturbed household.

I’ve tried to describe Brown’s writing and why I love it so much but I’ve been largely unsuccessful.  The best way I can put it is to say that when I read most other books of this sort, I feel as if I’m in a room with a group of people and the author is standing at a podium, telling us about his or her life. When I read Helen’s books—and note that I call her by her first name-- I feel as if I’m at Blackbird Bakery sharing coffee and treats while catching up with an old friend. I laugh a lot, I care a lot, and find much to which I can relate.  I become totally absorbed.  I had the book with me in the car while running errands and decided to sit and read a chapter before going into another store.  One chapter turned into several and when I made myself put the book down, I was totally disoriented.  I had to get out of the car and look around to figure out where I was.  

Not many books do that to me.  

I highly recommend Cats and Daughters.

(Note: The review of Cleo can be read here.)

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