One Thousand Words on How To Ruin a Perfectly Good Book

I have a bone to pick with authors who randomly stick the death of a pet into a book with no warning or reason.

This morning I was curled up on my couch in my fleece pajamas, sipping a cup of coffee and reading Jennifer Weiner’s Certain Girls. Christmas music was playing on the radio and my cat was sleeping at the other end of the sofa. It was perfect.

Certain Girls is the story of a mother and a daughter. I’m enjoying it even though the more I read the more convinced I become that I never read Good in Bed, the book that comes before this one.

I was in the middle of a flashback scene where the mother, Cannie, had just published her first book and survived a book tour. Then in the middle of page 179 her dog dies.

The dog wasn’t a central character, but he was mentioned several times. And he died a perfectly lovely death, simply passing away of old age on his dog bed by the fireplace while Cannie patted and whisper to him.

It was a short paragraph and then it was over. But it devastated me. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I’m tearing up now, just writing about it.

I said to myself, “Keep reading. Just keep reading and you’ll forget about it.” But I couldn’t concentrate. I read on for several more pages, but the words from that paragraph just kept running over and over in my head.

I wanted to throw the book and not pick it back up. I wanted to scoop up my sixteen year old cat from the other end of the couch and hug him for as long as he’d let me. And then hunt down my other two cats and give them a good cuddle too.

In the middle of this episode, my mother came in. I was crying so hard that she couldn’t understand what I was saying. I tried to tell her that I was ok. That I was crying because the dog in my book died. But it got all jumbled up in the tears and she thought I said my friend Nan’s dog had died. She was very concerned before I could stop crying enough to tell her it was just in the book. Even then she was sympathetic. More so than I would have been, I think.

Ok, I’ll admit that maybe I overreacted. Maybe I was just feeling emotional this morning and the dog dying hit me wrong. But even so, this one simple paragraph took me out of the world of the book. It made me want to stop reading it.

Why do authors throw in gratuitous pet death and ruin a perfectly good book?

Because it’s life? That’s no answer. Sure, dying pets are a part of life, but there are lots of things in life that suck and aren’t included in books for no reason. Like sexually transmitted diseases. No one randomly gets gonorrhea without a good reason in a book. It gives them a motive to confront their lover, or some such.

Or flat tires. If someone gets a flat tire in a book, something happens to them while their waiting for AAA or while they are squatting on the side of the road putting on the spare. It moves the plot along.

But authors kill off pets willy nilly and expect us to just get over it.

Today for instance, I can’t find any explanation why Nifkin (the dog) had to die. It was a flashback to ten years ago, but aren’t readers smart enough to figure out that if she had a dog back then and doesn’t now, that probably the dog died? Why make us cry?

Since this is a sequel, maybe the dog played a bigger role in the first book and so the author thought she had to explain his death somehow. But a simple sentence would have done. “I lost my Nifkin to old age…” or something or other. Why all the heartbreaking details if it didn’t do anything to move this story forward?

I have written before that I am over emotional when it comes to animals. I can’t stand to watch them die in movies. I believe that “defense of pet” is perfectly justifiable reason for murder. And I hate reading sad pet stories.

My friend Nan keeps giving me her favorite books about dogs. But in every stinking one, the dog dies. She gave me The Art of Racing in the Rain two years ago. I read the first couple of pages and I was crying so hard that I put it down and haven’t had the nerve to pick it back up. Nan assures me that it’s worth it. That the story is so good that I need to keep reading. But I can’t face it. (Sorry, Nan!)

I’ve learned to avoid stories of pet’s dying all together. I’m going to a conference in New York in a couple of weeks. Two friends really want to see War Horse while we are there and have invited me to join them. While I’m sure the show is amazing and shouldn’t be missed, I’m hesitant. The images the title conjures in my mind alone brings tears to my eyes.

Maybe this hypersensitivity is why seemingly harmless paragraphs about a dog dying a comfortable death throw me into a tailspin. You expect it in books like The Art of Racing in the Rain or Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. You know when you pick it up that nine times out of ten the pet is going to die.

But when you’re reading about the preparations for a girl’s bat mitzvah, the death of a pet kind of blindsides you. I don’t like to be blindsided. It pisses me off and makes me want to put the book away for good. That can’t possibly be the reaction the author was hoping for, can it?


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