Magical Realism, Creatures, and Escapism: A Review of Animal Wife by Lara Ehrlich
Words By Suzie Bartholomew
The stories of Animal Wife all begin with a solid image or emotion. “She will not be constrained by the word ‘Mom’…” or “Foresight arrives in an Amazon box.” All the stories in this collection feature women as the main character, and while reading each story, I found myself connecting with these women, even if their lives or the choices they made were drastically different from my own. Each story has a magical feel—most are steeped in magical realism. A woman might lose her feathers or choose to live in the forest as a deer. Each story flows from one to the next, connected by the unique lives of each protagonist, yet they each stand on their own.
What captivated me most of all was how Lara Ehrlich writes her characters. The stories feature women at different stages of life or different situations, and yet they feel familiar. This may be due to these women always being connected by their relationships with other characters. They are friends, mothers, daughters—sometimes all three at once—yet they remain their own person, first and foremost. These characters are women we know or women that we, ourselves, were at one point or another. One is a girl growing up and dealing with adolescent changes, while another is a woman wanting to escape from the pain of reality after losing her husband. One woman chooses to leave her family behind and ends up living in her car, becoming an outside observer of her daughter’s life. In another, a young girl grapples with the changes that come from growing up, begrudgingly sticking to a fairytale ideal of boys while trying to act the same way as other girls around her. Ehrlich gives us a cursory glance at these women’s lives, then dives deep into their inner selves, showing us the good and the bad. By doing this, we get to see these women not just as characters, but as human beings, people we can relate to.
Beyond the relatability of these women, you’ll notice that animals appear in almost every story. The use of animals in Ehrlich’s stories help make her characters more fully rounded, rather than being a distraction or gimmick. Her characters deal with grief, trauma, and anxieties, some more intense than others, yet what exactly those same characters are dealing with isn’t immediately evident. In one story, a woman nervous about going to a writer’s retreat—after years of only taking care of her family—is frightened by the visage of a man with horns and fangs. Her fear is palpable because this creature gives her a way to reveal said fear. Ehrlich uses animals, mythical or real, to show their emotions at a much deeper level than if we were to have story after story of women living their lives with no magical realism involved.
Allowing animals to show what in a character’s life has gone wrong or gone right is the overarching thematic tool that ties the writing and the characters in this collection together. It’s not always a literal animal—sometimes it may just be a more animalistic side of a protagonist’s personality. For example, in one story, we meet a cage fighter who revels in the pain she inflicts on her opponents, fully embracing her role, even beyond the cage and in her own neighborhood. However, there is an amazing magical element that pervades the characters and their situations. A bear will be a stand-in for a husband or lover. A creature of legend becomes a threat or fear of the unknown. What would seem odd in our world today feels normal in each story. Of course you would be happy to give a reference for that bear so they could get their own apartment. Why not? They happen to be a very good bear.
It is the narrative itself that helps bring the characters to life. Moments of grief or confusion are heightened not just by what the protagonist is going through, but also by Ehrlich’s pointed descriptions and dialogue. The shortest stories hold my favorite lines, such as, “When my father called her Mama, I wished she’d say, ‘I have a name.’” These are scenes that cut to your core and made me think, This isn’t a happy ending, but I love it anyway. The writing shows not only the choices the women make but also the result of those choices. The cause and effect of these choices lend the pieces a semblance of reality, all while using animals or creatures to expand the story.
Lara Ehrlich has written a collection of stories that allow for escapism. None of the stories may have a perfectly happy ending—and a couple are quite bittersweet—but they take us to worlds where women make their own choices without caring or worrying about how society and others might judge them for it. They have to live with the result of these choices, good or bad, and the realizations about themselves that come with them. But their lives are their own and they will do as they please. They will live in a car and leave their responsibilities behind, or they will choose to wait for a fairytale love and not settle for the boys they grew up with. It’s emotional and honest, which is this collection’s greatest strength.