The recent glut of apocalyptic novels has encouraged readers’ desires to become armchair spectators to doom. Our front-row seats at the end-of-days enable us to cheer for the scrappy protagonist survivors as we nurture fantasies of being singled out for greatness. That said, Diana Wagman’s novel The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets deals with a far more personal type of apocalypse. Both Winnie Parker and the man who kidnaps her lament being singled out for disaster, and in the course of their sometimes poignant, but more frequently brutal, interaction, each asks over and over, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?”
Winnie Parker would be the first to tell you how ordinary she is. Despite the fact that her mother is a flamboyant Academy Award-winning actress and her ex-husband is the host of a popular game show, she herself lives a modest Southern California life in which one of her greatest pleasures is doing laundry for herself and her daughter. Winnie has had her share of sorrow, much of it from the fact that her husband left her for a much younger woman, and she only just recently stopped driving by his house hoping to see him. Despite this, Winnie carries on, albeit like a sleepwalker.
She knew she shouldn’t complain. She was a reasonably attractive thirty-eight-year-old divorced woman. She had a job and she paid her mortgage and she loved her pain in the ass sixteen-year-old daughter. She had a couple of good friends. She read and went to the movies and flossed most nights before bed. There was just no air in her lungs anymore. She was deflated, like an old balloon caught on a fencepost.
On this particular day in this ordinary life, Winnie has to pick up her car from the repair shop. She accepts a ride from someone she thinks has been sent to take her to the shop only to discover that the intense young man driving the car has kidnapped her. Just like that her sleepwalking life has turned into a nightmare.
But Winnie wakes up fast. Even when she is sure her fate is sealed, she still fights, hard, for her life. Even when her abductor, Oren, grows increasingly unhinged, she keeps trying to understand him, everything from the horrors of his childhood to the deep love he has for his monstrous pet iguana Cookie. Yet throughout her ordeal one thing eludes her understanding: why her? Why would something like this happen to someone so ordinary?
As she discovers, Oren has in fact singled Winnie out, but for reasons that don’t make any sense to her. His vision of her life does not match her own at all, particularly when it comes to her daughter Lacy, whom Oren accuses Winnie of mistreating. At first Winnie steadfastly denies this—“I’m a good mother.” Later she begins to wonder: could she have been better to her daughter? Could she have done things differently? Of course the answer is yes; things could always be done differently, but it’s difficult to see that at the moment they’re being done. Oren himself is beginning to understand this as his plans go horribly awry—plans which, in some convoluted way, were only meant to bring Winnie, Lacy and himself closer together. Nothing is turning out the way either of them wanted.
“‘If I’m not who you want me to be, well—I’m not who I want to be either,’” Winnie half-apologizes, half-reasons. Oren’s reply: “‘Who is?’”
Wagman moves the novel deftly from suspense to dark comedy to thoughtful meditation on life, death, and reptile sex. The chapters are told from several different points of view, and as is often the case with multiple point-of-view stories, some are far more engaging than others. Winnie’s chapters are consistently the strongest and most compelling, as she is thoroughly believable and sympathetic. Most of the novel’s most harrowing scenes are told from her viewpoint, and they are disturbing indeed. The least successful chapters are those of Winnie’s ex, Jonathan, whose malapropisms just don’t ring true (reflecting on how upset his young wife Jessica will be when she hears a certain piece of bad news, he thinks she will “go through the sky—or whatever that expression was”). And yet even Jonathan has a key moment of understanding. “His heartbeats were limited. There went one. And another. And another. He felt each breath. He wanted to catch his life in both hands, but there was nothing to grab.” Wagman’s novel suggests that, like Winnie, once we get over the question “why me,” we grab for our lives anyway. No matter how ordinary life is, it is ours.