Trigger warnings for this book include: sexual assault, violence and rape of an elderly person and a minor. Descriptions of self harm. Miscarriage and fertility complications. If you wish to read this book but are concerned it might be triggering for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via DM. I'm happy to help navigate and forewarn you.
Joan abruptly leaves New York City after a married man shot himself in front of her while she was having dinner with another married man. Desperate for a breath of, well, different air, Joan drives to California in search of one person who can help her unravel her past. It is here Joan begins to truly drown in her familial trauma. Animal gives us anti-heroine Joan, who is by no means perfect, but at the end you can’t help but root for her—at least a little bit.
“If someone asked me to describe myself in a single word, depraved is the one I would use.”
When I read Three Women in October 2019, I had to remind myself that the stories were non-fiction; that in itself could be a criticism of the book (as discussed in a New Yorker review). But when I found out Taddeo was releasing fiction I knew I had to get my hands on it because no matter how you felt about Three Women, it is undeniable that Taddeo has a way with words.
Within the first hundred pages—and having spoken to a few people who had read it before me—I realized in order to be fully on board with this book you needed two things: kill-men energy and deep-rooted cynicism for life. As much as I try to be an obnoxiously positive person, I unfortunately possess both of these qualities and enjoyed what Animal had to offer and say about the world.
“I am someone who believes she knows which people should be dead and which should be alive. I am a lot of things. But I am not a sociopath.”
All of the men in Animal are simply: the worst. It is hard to tell whether Taddeo was writing the men this way as an accurate or ironic depiction of stereotypical attributes we are all very familiar with. The men depicted in this book mostly all fall under the umbrella of “creepy old dude,” with a few exceptions. While to me it felt like that is the only perspective we got, I simply can’t argue with the fact that these people exist and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say most of us are fairly familiar with them in our own lives. While the consistency of disgusting behaviour felt a bit exaggerated when reading in a condensed book of roughly 300 pages, if we were to think through the span of our lives I think our creepy old dude meter would be ticking right up with Joan’s. I think it would be easy for readers to write Animal off as an unrealistic representation of men—and there are elements of it that lend me to agree with this assumption—but I would argue that isn’t a fair assessment. Women live in fear of being preyed upon by these exact types of men everyday and yet when we read about it in a fictional setting it’s argued that it’s not realistic? I disagree.
“Men don’t necessarily want to be the bad guys, but they don’t want to be the ordinary ones, either.”
The life of a modern woman, broadly speaking, is what I saw as the focus of Animal. There are a few issues with this depiction that I will discuss soon but all in all Joan’s mentality and lived experiences with men can be quite relatable for a lot of women, and I’m including anyone who identifies as a woman. As much as it pains me to say, I feel as though every woman has an event in their life where they have been put in a position they didn’t want to be at the hands of a man. These experiences are what underpin our main character Joan and her general distrust, dislike, and anger towards men. Personally, I find these ideologies to be quite relatable. Before I go on I want all readers to know that I am okay and nothing extremely horrific has ever happened to me, thank goodness. However, I do live in fear of it someday being a possibility. I don’t feel comfortable walking alone at night even in a crowded street, I get nervous when people are yelling around me, and when I am planning to meet up with a potential sexual partner I have to mentally prepare for the fact that they might not be the person I had thought and it could end up with me in a dangerous position. These fears and feelings were thrown on a page (albeit amplified) in Animal. While this novel and its events were completely out of the realm of my reality, to me, these fears and anxieties are what underpinned the story. It felt extremely courageous and bold to write a novel with so much anger and hostility towards men because at the end of the day it’s a feeling a lot of us could say we have at times shared.
Despite having enjoyed this novel and what it says about the lived experiences of men and women in our modern world, I must also reflect on the fact that while horrific experiences are universal, being able to run away from your apartment in NYC on a whim to live in the desert in LA is not. This book was written from an extremely privileged point of view. Criticisms of a similar vein were part of the conversation around Three Women—a book marketed to be about female desire, but only focused on three white women (two of whom are Christian). I don’t think it is entirely fair to completely discount Animal for its lack of top down extrapolation of the lived experience of the modern woman; because to attribute that task to one person is completely impossible. However, I do think it is infinitely important to be aware of these disparities and how this is a very focused depiction of a life in fiction.
“I’d always been afraid that thinking about men meant I wasn’t a strong woman.”
I think this novel is bold. It is not perfect by any means, but it was entertaining to read and gave me a lot to think about when it comes to the representation of men and women in fiction that attempts to mirror relevant societal issues of the time. Animal will face a lot of distaste from readers but I implore you to think about why it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Animal is a bold novel because it attempts to go where others won’t. It is fiercely angry and as the title suggests, depicts a woman who is animalistically driven by nature. She thinks about food, sex, and children—the only things animals and furthermore humans are inherently made to think about. People will find Joan daunting and too much, but why must we criticize her for that? In society we want angry women, we want people to be fierce and take their destiny into their own hands. Seeing this in fiction is almost a get-out-of-jail-free card because we reap some satisfaction from the action but no direct consequence. No one is perfect, fictionalized or otherwise, so if we don’t hold ourselves to the same standard of complete and utter moral perfection to live a life not fraught with judgement then why should we with Joan? At the end of the day it’s fiction, so if we can root for two magical faeries to fuck at completely inappropriate times—hi A Court Of Thorns And Roses series, I’m talking to you—I think we can allow ourselves to root for Joan to enact revenge because sometimes, even if just imagined, it’s nice to see some awful person get their comeuppance. Animal is bold, angry and tangy. It won’t be for everyone but what book ever is?
By Lisa Taddeo
321 pages. 2021.