The Short Review: Kept Animals is an atmospheric slow burn, filled to the brim with an intriguing cast of characters. Beautifully written and intricately plotted, this is one of those books you’ll wish you could experience again for the first time.
The Long Review: Before I started Kept Animals, I assumed it was a story about a girl and her horse. You know, something along the lines of that movie Flicka, starring Alison Lohman and her questionable mid-western accent. I don’t consider myself to be particularly drawn to these stories, but after seeing a rave review of this book on Twitter, I thought I’d give it a shot.
What I realized almost immediately was that I’d unfairly judged this book by its cover. While there are definitely shades of the ‘girl and her horse’ story in this book, it’s only one part of a much larger narrative. Milliken manages to balance several plot threads, two timelines, and a large cast of characters with total command. It’s so well-crafted on every level.
Now, before we go any further, I do want to clarify that I have no issues with stories about horses—I just don’t often enjoy reading about animals. However, if you do enjoy these stories, Kept Animals writes so beautifully about horses and the relationship we have with animals. Maybe I’m unfairly judging this sub-genre, since I also greatly enjoyed Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani. I think if you liked that book, you’ll enjoy Kept Animals—they’re both coming-of-age stories that involve horses, but are also rich in the worlds they’ve created and explore their characters in new and exciting ways. But before I get too off track in examining my own biases towards these stories and my place in them, let’s carry on with the review.
It’s hard to explain the many reasons why I loved this book without providing more context, so please bear with me. Kept Animals is set in Topanga Canyon, California. I love books set in California. Whether it’s White Oleander by Janet Fitch or Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, the descriptions of the chaparral always thrill me. Milliken manages to not only write beautifully about this place, but it all feels so fresh—this book gave me a new pair of eyes from which to look at California, and it’s never been more beautiful.
The main focus of the story is on Rory Ramos, who works as a ranch hand at her stepdad’s stable in 1993. It’s there that she meets these rich twins, June and Wade Fisk. June makes it clear that she’s into Rory, but Rory seems more into this girl who lives down the hill, Vivian Price, the daughter of a big movie star. Things only get more complicated after a tragic car accident brings the lives of these three girls closer together.
The three girls are all written with such depth and nuance. I don’t think there are enough literary explorations of queer women out there, and this one felt like a blessing to the overall literary canon. And it’s not just the girls that are fleshed out either—every single person you encounter feels alive. All of the characters feel like they’ve been living these lives far before we ever meet them. Milliken captures something specific about the expansiveness of humans. Sometimes, when I’m reading books, I think to myself, people in real life have more interests; they have more things going on in their lives. Milliken is somehow able to capture every aspect of the lives of her characters, without it feeling overwhelming. It’s beautiful to see.
Milliken doesn’t miss a single detail in this world she’s written about. In some ways, it reminded me of Annie Proulx, and how Proulx always seems to capture these things you’ve never noticed, and with gorgeous prose, Milliken’s sentences pull their weight. One of my favorite examples of this is towards the end of the novel; these characters have had to deal with this catastrophic event, and Milliken explains the emotion by writing:
“The thing about trauma is that even after it is over, it is still happening. It is a memory in motion, forever present.’
These moments are all throughout the book, beautiful jewels of sentences one after the next. However, because of that, this isn’t a lazy read. No skimming to meet your page-count for the day. It’s a book that demands time and attention, but I’m a big fan of those, so I just think it’s perfect.
I also just loved how this story came together in the end. Don’t worry! I won’t give away any spoilers. But this book is able to give you a perfect ending—not an ending that ties everything up with a pretty little bow—but an ending that made so much sense to where this story was headed. I loved it and I have read the last page at least a dozen times since finishing. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
Reminiscent of the books we read as teenagers, that we love so much we refuse to tell our friends about; we hide these books under our beds and hope that these characters, this world, this story is all ours and ours alone. My only recommendation is to slow down when you read it, and enjoy every moment. It’s worth it.
By Kate Milliken
368 pages. 2020.