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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 30, 2020 Elizabeth Edelglass

A Debut Novel About Family

When La La Fine is eight, her mother disappears, and her father, Zev, starts taking her with him to work. Unfortunately, Zev’s work is part-time locksmith, part-time burglar. Fifteen years later, when Zev gets arrested, La La quits veterinary school to raise money for his legal defense the only way she knows how—robbing houses. What constitutes a good mother? A good father? A good daughter? A normal life? These are questions posed by R.L. Maizes in her compelling debut novel Other People’s Pets (Celadon Book, $26.99).

La La wants to fit in—with her classmates, her co-workers, and her fiancé Clem—yet she never does. Her life has been shaped by the abandonment by her mother, but also by the secrets of her father’s and her own criminal endeavors.

One more thing that’s different about La La: she’s an animal empath. She feels animals’ pain, almost hears their voices. La La relates better to animals than to people. Animals, she thinks, “are incapable of deceit. They don’t say, ‘I’m making a run to the grocery store,’ while secretly planning to leave you.”

La La and Zev are Jews who insist they’re not religious, yet both frequently call upon God for help. La La’s ability to communicate with animals also draws on a rich Jewish history of magical realism, from the golem to Superman, although La La may not always use her superpowers for good. In her youth, she calms pets while her father steals from their owners. As an adult, she roams the streets searching for homes where she can sense a pet in need—feed or comfort the dog while making off with the jewels. Can she justify her thievery by acts of kindness to animals? La La’s internal debates over right and wrong are another link to the Jewish storytelling tradition.

Other People’s Pets arrives one year after Maizes’s first book, the delightfully quirky story collection We Love Anderson Cooper. As in her stories, Maizes here tackles serious issues with humor. In one flashback, La La remembers how single-dad Zev taught her about menstruation using two lemons, an avocado, and some loose purple grapes. After the lesson, “they ate the grapes, and Zev made guacamole.” 

In the end, through events I won’t reveal here, La La grows from a scared, lonely girl into a woman at peace with both of her parents and with herself. Zev may have isolated her from other children, but he also, she realizes, taught her to rely on her own sharp skills. It’s harder to accept La La’s seeming forgiveness of her mother, yet her determination to throw off the lifelong scars of her mother’s absence draws the book to a satisfying conclusion.