Friday, February 4, 2011

CLEO: The Cat Who Mended a Family by Helen Brown — 272 pgs


Book CoverWhen Helen Brown's two young sons see the neighbor's litter of kittens for the first time, she's staunch about not bringing any of the new babies into her home. When she sees the tiny runt of the litter, she falls in love with the little kitten and agrees to welcome the little bundle into her home when the kittens are old enough to be weaned. But before the delivery date is due, a terrible accident befalls Helen's family and her older son is killed in a horrible traffic accident. The Brown's world is crushed, and no matter what they try, they can't seem to get over the loss of Sam. One day a neighbor pops over to deliver the new kitten. Of course Helen is mortified and thinks of as many excuses as she can to deny the new addition, but as soon as the cat snuggles into her chest, her heart begins to melt and Helen's prejudices are pushed aside. The cat, named Cleo, is instantly at home in the house and quickly wraps everyone around her little paw. Devious and playful, Cleo's antics give the family something to focus on besides their grief, and her cuddliness and winsome attitude soon make this house of confessed dog lovers prey to the whims of an unusual and special feline. As Cleo teaches Helen and her family about healing and redemption, they come to envelop the cat into all areas of their hearts. Through the years, Cleo becomes not only an ally to be counted on, but the center of healing for the broken and careworn family. At times hilariously funny and at others tearfully sad, the story of Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family is not only a great story for animal lovers, but for anyone who is dealing with unexpected heartache and change.

There are tons of animal books out there right now, and for the most part, I stay away from them. If you know me personally, you'd think this is very strange indeed, because I'm a huge animal lover and have a houseful of pets of all varieties. I've had pets all my life, from chinchillas and turtles to ducks and snakes, and of course the run of the mill dogs and cats. So I would be the perfect person to enjoy these stories of extraordinary animals, right? Well, that's not exactly what happens. I get all invested in these stories and come to love the animals in the books and feel a deeper and stronger connection to the animals I live with... and then the subject of the animal book dies. And I cry something fierce and ugly, and I vow to never read another book like it again. I figure what I need is an animal book that doesn't over-sentimentalize this point of the book and that doesn't build me up to a point where I'm heart sore for days after turning the last page. I got all that and more in Cleo, and though there were some things that I didn't really like about the book, the one thing that I did like was the straightforward and no-nonsense coverage of some of the more touchy and sensitive parts of this unusual cat's life.

A few things struck me as odd. First of all, I thought there might be a little too much anthropomorphizing of Cleo than was strictly necessary, and while the description of some of the things she did sounded very human, I guess it was a little hard for me to believe that she was sort of like a human trapped in a cat's body. During the early sections, Helen goes to great pains to let the reader know that Cleo seemed to be a bundle of energy, and somehow interprets this as Cleo's way of giving the other human residents in the house something to focus on besides their grief. I can certainly understand that she would see it that way, but being the owner of kittens at many different times in my life, I have to say that this is not all that unique a trait. Kittens are normally very playful and at times destructive by nature. They are often more self-absorbed than Helen thinks her cat is, and I can't exactly say that Cleo's personality was all that different from a lot of cats I've had. Maybe this struck Helen because she'd never been a cat owner before, but after awhile, Cleo lost her sparkle for me because, although she was beautiful and lovable, I just didn't see that she was acting like a human as Helen did. As a matter of fact, the best things about cats to me is that they are so different from humans, so much more wild, playful and at times aloof. This turning Cleo into a human who seemed to be trapped in a cat's body was just a little weird for me.

Another thing that seemed strange was that Helen and her remaining son seemed to attribute all these mystical powers to the cat. Cleo invaded the boy's dreams and spoke to him of how she would being him peace and friendship, and at other times, Helen claims to have had powerful spiritual awakenings in relation to Cleo. This was just weird to me. I'm always open to new and challenging ideas, but this just didn't seem to fit. Perhaps Helen was searching so hard for something after her son died that she thinks she found it in a cat. Perhaps I'm wrong and all these things are true, but to believe that Cleo is adept at picking Helen's next suitor or that she can bring friends to the family who has lost so much seems to be stretching it a bit. I also didn't like that when Cleo comes to live with the family, the dog they've had for years is relegated to second fiddle and eventually given away to her mother. This is not the way a responsible pet owner behaves, and though she makes some convincing reasons why this has to happen, it really made me uncomfortable.

Where this book excels is in its revelation of how the presence of an animal can heal even the deepest wounds. Though I sort of disagree with all the magical properties that Helen imbues Cleo with, there's no doubt in my mind that a cat can not only be a wonderfully loyal and steadfast companion, but can also demonstrate and require the attention and love that may be missing in our lives. The healing power of a warm "fur child" on your lap is worth years of therapy to some, and science has proven that animals have restorative and healing powers beyond what we think is possible. They teach us to love unconditionally and to take things as they come. They teach us it's not so bad to have a few lazy days or to get excited by the little things, and I think this book shares that message in a clever and uplifting way. As I mentioned before, it's also not one of those "downer" animal books, and it manages to be very emotionally level when it comes to the more difficult parts of owning a pet.

As anyone who owns an animal knows, they can be your best friend and greatest ally, and though I enjoyed those parts of Cleo's story, I found that the book may have been a little too strange to fully relate to. The sections dealing with Helen's grief over losing her son were poignant and humbling, but it was really hard for me to believe that one cat saved a family from that kind of grief. I am not saying it's impossible, just that I think it may have taken a little bit more for me to get over something like that. I do think that those readers who like stories about precocious and adorable animals could possibly love this one, and it's a bonus for me to have found an animal book that doesn't leave me bleary eyed with tears. An interesting, if not totally believable tale.

13 comments:

Amy said...

Ummm this does sound a little strange! Not going to lie. I call my cats my 'baby boys', but I'm mostly (lol) joking, and they certainly haven't been in my dreams. heh.

Jenny said...

I believe in pets being therapeutic and all that, but this book definitely doesn't sound like one I'd like because of those reasons you stated. Plus I'm more of a dog person. ;)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I tend to avoid animal books too for the reasons you stated. This one sounds a little weird, based on your insightful interpretation.

Steph said...

I avoid animal books for much the same reason too! I just wind up crying, even if nothing sad/bad happens. Animals get me every time!

bermudaonion said...

I think we all think our pet is special and a little extraordinary. I am so with you on the not being able to handle the animal dying in a book. I love that this book shows the healing power of an animal's love.

Marie said...

Sounds cute but pet memoirs leave me a little cold. I love my kitty-cat too but *come on*! LOL

Amy said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this book for the most part. I too tend to shy away from books about animals because I have extreme difficulty dealing if/when the animal gets ill or dies. But I loved this book! Cleo reminded me of a couple of cats I used to have! I loved that she brought so much comfort and love to Helen and Rob and was so very special to their family! I was also so impressed by how long Cleo lived even with a major move and a year without her family. In some ways, Cleo seems to be a very remarkable cat.

I enjoyed your review. It's given me some things to think about regarding the book!
~ Amy

Suko said...

Excellent review, Zibilee. While I have found that cats can comfort those in need, it does sound just a bit far-fetched.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Jenners said...

Very balanced review ... and I'm not big on any of these pet memoirs. I read the Marley one and that was about it. I love animals but I'm always a bit suspicious when there are too many of these types of books. And this sounds like it should be more a book about grief than about a cat ... it sounds like the family handed way too much control and power to a cat.

TheBookGirl said...

Very interesting review Heather. My dog has a very distinct personality, and at times I have had to stop myself from crediting him with too much human thought/emotion. I am convinced that animals are very attuned to human feelings; I still remember how our cat circled around the living room constantly as our family was being notified of a death when I was a young child. And, when I cry, my dog immediately comes to me with his ears up and his paws out...
By the same token, I find it sort of strange, as you did, that this cat could heal a family from such a traumatic loss.
Even though I love animals, I don't read these type of books much...saw the movie Marley and me, and felt that my emotions were manipulated too much...

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

This one does sound a little bit strange. I don't think I'll be reading this one.

I'm a huge animal lover, and I tend to stay away from these kinds of books for the same reason.s

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was curious about this one, but not sure that I would enjoy it -- even as a cat lover. Thanks for sharing your thoughts heather.

Nymeth said...

I'm also an animal lover who avoids animal books for the exact same reasons as you! This sounds interesting, but the excessive anthropomorphizing would get to me as well.

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