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A debut collection of short stories offers an unrelenting examination of the loneliness, helplessness, and daily cruelties of our contemporary world.

This book is composed of linked stories that pursue three families across several decades. Parker writes brutally but with humor about each family’s desperate endeavors. These are characters as unprepared for intimacy as they are for trauma. One mother, unable to face or even inform her daughters of her cancer diagnosis, directs her energies toward the elephant seals massed together on the shore near her home. The seals have come to mate and to molt, a process known as “catastrophic molting” (the story gets its title from this term), whereby the seals cast off their old skins in favor of velvety new ones. At first, the seals disgust her, but she eventually tames one and comes repeatedly to brush its molting skin away. The metaphor is apt: the woman who watches the seals is dying from melanoma and, unable to shed her own skin, distracts herself with the small comforts of keeping up appearances: powdering her nose, reapplying lipstick. Her daughter discovers her illness only when her wig is blown off in the wind. Taken together, these stories provide a vivid kaleidoscope of narratives. Characters appear as children and then reappear, later in the book, married and with children of their own. Their stories are told and retold from varying perspectives, which provide new insight into their histories in the same way that a mystery can be pieced together from new details. As Parker’s title suggests, animals and children take a central role in the book; in each story, they are the registrars of pain inflicted upon, and by, a grown-up world.

This riveting collection executes a grim autopsy on American family life.

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-544-37013-5
Page count: 678pp
Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2015


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