by Lisa Taddeo | Review by Meredith McKinnie
“Let me tell you: men love cruelty. It reminds them of every time their fathers or mothers didn’t think they were good enough. Cruelty looks better on a woman than the perfect dress.”
Lisa Taddeo’s writing singes like a lightning bolt. Her social commentary and intense characterizations are deeply layered and beyond the pale. As for authors, she is one of my favorite discoveries in the last few years, though it has more to do with her power with language than her ability to compose fiction. She’s a mad woman’s writer, slaying her angst and rage all over the page, chronicling the modern woman’s condition in what is still a man’s world. She creates female characters who are foremost flawed, but who harness power for something other than redemption. They don’t want to be saved – they’re sick of being needy.
Animal is Taddeo’s debut novel, though she is well-known for her nonfiction book Three Women, which I reviewed last year (and loved). In Animal, the protagonist Joan is trying to both escape her past and avenge it. Leaning on sexual prowess and animal instincts, Joan thrives on chaos and leaves messes everywhere she goes. After her married lover commits suicide, Joan moves across country to seek out Alice, a hippie yoga instructor, for unnamed reasons. She situates herself in Topanga Canyon, pursuing a friendship with Alice, all while dodging phone calls from her former lover’s widow. The dialogue exchanges between Alice and Joan feature acerbic revelations and frank expressions of female angst – these conversations are the high points of the novel. The story lags. We keep waiting for it to start and Joan won’t stop looking backward. It can leave the reader feeling that the bulk of the story already happened and nothing else will unfold. The past is revealed in scenes that are gripping and tragic – almost all those scenes revolve around sexual violence. Readers should be prepared for graphic descriptions of sex and abuse.
This novel didn’t lessen my love for Taddeo, but it did provide nuance. I keep ruminating on the plot, wondering if the wait was intentional, that perhaps being left waiting was the point. I trust her command of language and her ability to articulate the rawness of female existence enough to trust her judgment. I always keep a running list of quotes to include in each review. During this reading, I had 12 by the end of the first chapter and quit writing them down. Taddeo always has a strong point of view, so strong and poignant in fact that a lackluster plot almost seems irrelevant.
“You can’t unlove someone. You can only hate them.”