Monday 25 April 2011

Everybody wants to be a cat...

When I was grabbing a book for the train down to Somerset, I decided upon Jennie by Paul Gallico. I bought it nearly three years ago, and have had numerous recommendations for it - especially from the appropriately nicknamed Dark Puss. After recently loving Love of Seven Dolls (more here) it seemed sensible to try more Gallico - with the bonus that Jennie would fit into the themes of my doctoral research even if, published in 1950, it's a little too late for my period of study.

And I decided, since I was at home, it would be nice for Sherpa to pose sitting alongside my copy of Jennie. Sherpa had other ideas... as documented through this post.

There is a very simple story behind Jennie - an eight years-old boy called Peter suddenly discovers that he has turned into a cat. As you do. Unlike metamorphosis tales like Lady Into Fox, the novel isn't focalised through those who witness the change - nor do we witness Peter trying to live alongside his family as a cat. They are quickly left behind, as Nanny throws him into the street ("Drat the child! He's dragged in another stray off the street! Shoo! Scat! Get out!") Peter dashes through the streets, is beaten unconscious by a territorial cat who doesn't want to share his shelter, and by the time Peter comes to, he is in the company of Jennie.
Peter rolled over and behled the speaker squatted down comfortably beside him, her legs tucked under her, tail nicely wrapped around. She was a thin tabby with a part white face and throat that gave her a most sweet and gentle aspect heightened by the lively and kind expression in her luminous eyes that were grey-green, flecked with gold.

Jennie gives him a bath and a mouse ('To his intense surprise, it was simply delicious') and sets about teaching Peter how to be a cat - as, after a little hesitation, she believes his account of how he became a cat.

It is this vein of Jennie which gives it both its charm and somehow rescues it from being too fey or whimsical. Gallico captures the behaviour of cats so exactly (the first rule, at all times: WASH). If he'd kept an eye on the human observers, laughing at how cats misunderstood such-and-such, or inventing witty reasons for cats behaving so-and-so, then Jennie might well have been unbearable. Instead, it is... well, 'realistic' is hardly the word, but Gallico shows Jennie in as workmanlike a manner as possible under the circumstances. Her explanations of how strays must loiter in every doorway when exiting, to check the street for safety, make sense. The way she uses humans, and doesn't trust them, chimes in with many of the timid cats one sees on the streets. I didn't love the idea of cats greeting one another with faux-18th century decorum, nor the idea of some sort of feline telepathy, but in general Gallico didn't overstep the mark.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote her own fantasy in the form of Lolly Willowes, said this in a 1929 lecture:
Since [the fantasist’s] main thesis surprises by itself, he must deny himself further surprises…. The novelist not only may niggle away with small licences all the time, he is a dull dog if he doesn’t. But the fantasist, having taken his initial liberty, must mind his Ps and Qs for the rest of his adventure…. The fantasist who has begun by asking for one vast initial credit must do on that credit to the end.
Well said, Sylvia. And Gallico is almost always content to let the turning-into-a-cat liberty be the main one. True, there are some unlikely dramatic incidences as they board a ship to Glasgow, and Gallico sprinkles coincidences through the novel like nobody's business, but...

When I wrote about Love of Seven Dolls I mentioned that it had something of the atmosphere of a fairy-tale - which didn't hinder the pathos, but rather made the evil streak of the novel less striking. Jennie is even more like a fairy-tale - in fact, at times it felt like a Disney film. The characters are drawn with surprising reality, but the events are not. Easily the most interesting chapters were those where Peter was learning how to be a cat, or contemplating the relationship between owner and pet. I was less interested when merry escapades took over, and there is one spectacularly superfluous chapter about Lulu - an excitable, flirty, irreverent cat with whom Peter is briefly smitten. I think Gallico perhaps felt his initial conceit was flagging a bit, and so introduced this little ball of fire - but Lulu sticks out so obviously as a distraction to enliven proceedings that I feel she should either have arrived much earlier, or not been introduced at all.

It is the plotting and tone which made Jennie a bit of a disappointment to me. The characters of Jennie and Peter are great - and, as I've said, Gallico has really closely observed cat behaviour. But the tone is too sprightly, even with the sad aspects of the story. What I loved in Love of Seven Dolls was the dark, subversive tone intertwining with the whimsical. If Jennie doesn't become too whimsical, it also never wanders into darker territory - it felt a lot like a children's tale which wouldn't stray too far from an accessible storytime-voice.

It is a really fun novel to read, and I'm sure a similar idea has been done much worse. But Lady Into Fox demonstrates how subtle and moving the metamorphosis novel can be; Love of Seven Dolls shows Gallico is capable of more - Jennie just didn't live up to the hopeful expectations it had accumulated after three years on my bookshelf. But do give it a go - it might be just the novel you're after.


  1. I loved Jennie ! I'm allergic to real cats, and Jennie is one of those novels I always turn to when I wish I could have a fuzzy little feline all my own! I loved the fairy tale aspect of it all, and I'm sorry it didn't work as well for you. Thanks for the great review!

  2. I haven't read "Jennie", but "Seven Dolls" I read a long time ago. Used to love the film "Lili". If you can find a copy of Gallico's "The Man Who Was Magic" I think you would enjoy it.

  3. Ah well, you win some you lose some; I think your review is very fair to the book. Try Kafka on the Shore for a rather different view of communicating cats ...

  4. I read Jennie when I was about 12, which was probably ideal as I could enjoy it uncritically. It was certainly my favourite of Gallico's books until I found The Man Who Was Magic, which I loved - I wonder if I would still...?

  5. I think Simon you are the wrong age! Too old but not yet old enough! Try this book again when you are 40 something!

  6. This book sounds to me like a lot of fun, despite your reservations. And I love that quote from Sylvia Townsend Warner. I've had people look at me strangely when I complain that a fantasy novel or TV show isn't realistic, but I think fantasy writers need to adhere to some sort of rule.

    Your photos of Sherpa cracked me up. I've often tried to get my Sophie to pose prettily with a stack of books or whatever, but she will have none of that. Last week, though, I was shooting a photo that I did not want her in, and she struck some lovely poses. Sigh.

  7. This sounds similar to a short story I read in E. Nesbit's The Magic World. She had several stories that had cats in them, but I think it was the Cat-hood of Maurice. Ever read that one?

  8. Love the photos of your kitten! I love to watch my cat get up to mischief, although it is hard to photograph him at his cutest. It sounds like a fun book.

  9. Caitlin - how awful to be allergic to cats! Gosh... well, I'm glad Jennie helps :) I think I prefer my cats to be a little contemptuous or snide, and not reveal their thoughts particularly... some wonderful ones in the book I've just finished: Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson.

    Joy - I really want to watch Lili, but it's so expensive on DVD. Haven't heard of The Man Who was Magic, but will keep an eye out...

    Peter - well, I definitely enjoyed it, so it could have gone much worse! I will put it on the reread-when-I'm-40 list. I have Persuasion on the reread-when-I'm-30 list already...

    Jodi - the second mention for that from commenters - I'll have to get me a copy, won't I?!

    Teresa - I'm glad we understand each other, and have Warner to back us up! So true. I need my fantasies to have strict parameters. And although most cats are independent, I've not met many as independent as Sherpa - she likes to make decisions for herself!

    Susan - I have an E. Nesbit-shaped hole in my reading. Well, I've read Railway Children and Five Children and It, etc., but there are great swathes I've not read...

    Carolyn - I know, I could watch Sherpa gambol around the garden all day!

  10. Sherpa is such a sweetie.

    I read Jennie when I was a child and adored it; i haven't reread it yet as wary of how I will find it as an adult.

    Perhaps you would enjoy The Meowmorphosis...

  11. I mus, must, must read some Gallico. Oh how blogging reminds me of all the books I am missing just when I think I am making some headway! Oh dear.

    Loving the pictures of the cat and the book, very cute.

  12. Wow! What a great reading list in the comments. My son is 10 and has been cat-crazy most of his life. We have 3 cats and I have read him 153 cat-related books (I have a tag for that in Goodreads) including Jenny (published in the U.S. as The Abandoned). We also enjoyed Gallico's Manxmouse. Not a cat book, but a delightfully surreal experience that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland.

    I'm going to add some of these recommendations to our reading list and hope that some are available in the U.S. We have collected most of Kathleen Hale's Orlando books and almost all of them were shipped from overseas at more expense than I really should have been spending, but they were so worth it. In fact, we loved those books so much, we got an orange kitten and named him Orlando. I have a great pic of him as a kitten, posing with his namesake books, but the comments here don't allow image tags.


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