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ANIMAL HEART by Brenda Peterson


by Brenda Peterson

Pub Date: March 1st, 2004
ISBN: 1-57805-108-8

Strangely gratifying narratives never quite gel and yet stand ably and intriguingly on their own six feet: love story, natural-history lesson, mysticism, direct-action radical politics, xenotransplantation, and redemption.

Sea creatures are stranding themselves on the beaches of Oregon, causing no little pain to Isabel Spinner, forensic wildlife pathologist and lover of the ocean. From the evidence, she suspects foul play, likely something to do with Navy sonar experiments. Enter Marshall McGreggor, underwater photographer and friend of Isabel’s brother. Though both of them have hair to die for (she, “wild, kinky curls” of auburn, he, “unruly black hair too beautiful, thick, and curly for a man”—he also, ahem, works for National Geographic and is “as reliable as the weather”), their relationship is hardly combustible. They have too much emotional baggage for any lasting commitment—damaged goods, but near-perfect ones: gorgeous, talented, tuned to the music of the spheres. And he has the heart of a baboon—literally, having gotten it by transplant after a heart attack—which seems to give him out-of-body episodes that take him back to the African savannah and on a quest to find the matriarch of his clan. Yet, despite the often irritating, repining tone, Isabel and Marshall are appealing because of the ballast of their emotional disorders and the righteousness of their cause: to protect wildlife from the ravages of man. Novelist and memoirist Peterson (Build Me an Ark, 2001, etc.) is most comfortable in the precincts of natural history, where the book draws its passion. Though she can wear her learning like a wooden yoke (“ ‘Snow can’t melt on wolf’s fur,’ Isabel commented”), she writes with force and concision about poachers and the hugely destructive recklessness of military testing.

Provocative in the best sense: it gets the reader mad enough to care.