Book Review: Migrating Animals by Mary Helen Specht

May 19th, 2015  |  Published in May 2015

Another splendid novel by a virtually unknown young American woman, Migratory Animals is a fine look at a group of friends who met in college, who are now in their late twenties/early thirties. The novel about college friends who hang together afterwards has become a common American trope: Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent The Marriage Plot covers similar territory. But within any genre, the differences are often more engaging than the genre itself, and Mary Helen Specht, author of Migratory Animals, has given us a sensitive and beautifully written novel (the anaology to migrating birds is a fine one, and birds make appearances throughout this novel).

The primary protagonist is a single woman nicknamed Flan, who is torn between two loves: both represent completely different lives and futures, and though both will involve choosing one man over another, her primary choice concerns what kind of life and future she truly wants to have. All her group of friends are well educated, all went to a small unknown college near Austin, Texas (where the author now teaches). We cannot help but admire Specht’s range of friends, and the fact that almost all of their lives/businesses/ choices at the beginning of their post collegiate years are failing: that’s quite a different take on the young professionals to whom American media are now shamelessly pandering, and whose opinions on anything from culture to food to economics we are supposed to admire (want a streetcar? we’ll give you one….a grocery store? Here… do we get you to try the symphony/art museum? give ’em parties and let them drink during the concerts: their every word is law…..). Well, Specht doesn’t see her friends that way, but they are a remarkably interesting and varied group, and are assuredly loyal to one another’s lives, loves, undertakings. Most of Migratory Animals explores the dynamics of these friendships.  One friend has won a fellowship in fiber arts/ceramics; the award comes with a house in South Texas, and Specht’s description of this woman’s spiral into severe depression, and the depression’s interrelationships with her creative processes, are brilliantly rendered, rarely better delineated, including her boredom with her own children. (Women’s relationships with their biologies and their feelings about having children or not is becoming a major theme in contemporary fiction; one feels the audience for same may be more female than male, but I urge males to read these new writers’ takes on same, so understanding about ambivalence about motherhood can make sense in a world where women may have too many choices, but individually may be overwhelmed by them). Specht is equally strong when describing her male characters, and friendships amongst them, as with her females: the new American male is appearing more and more frequently in the fiction of younger American writers in particular, and they are gentler, and more caring about one another, and far more supportive as partners than ever in our history).

Flan’s work as  a PH.D. candidate in one of the environmental sciences has taken her to Kenya, where she has an equally important and nurturing group of friends, and meets a man who becomes her lover and friend and possible future partner. There’s another possible man back in Texas, and tho the novel leads us through both relationships, it’s really not clear til the very end which life (and man, in that order) she will choose. The character’s mother has died hideously of Huntington’s Disease, and Flan discovers while back in Texas that her sister has the gene for it, while she does not. The book then poses a dialectic between the demands of family and those of career, science, and specific help for environmental degradation in Kenya, so the choices Flan will make are far more complex than Man A or Man B. Specht is brilliant when exploring the change in women’s attitudes about their own lives, and we are privileged to watch as most of the female (and some of the male) characters become self-empowered, often with/through the help of their female friends within the group (and different kinds of help from their male friends). The theme of contemporary female friendship is becoming a big one in contemporary American fiction; we hope some writers will come along who explore male/male friendships with equivalent sensitivity and insight. It’s also lovely reading about male/female friendships that aren’t sexual and don’t become so: feminism and gender studies have worked wonders on the way we educate our young in America , now, and writers like Specht reflect these ideological changes with great insight. And when an organic farm fails, and a two man architectural practice doesn’t pan out, and one marriage falls apart, these friends still grow with one another; in Specht’s world, money and financial “success” don’t mean a whole lot (yet?), but the friendships do, above all else.

Specht uses the symbolism of migrating birds admirably, as their arrival and departure often mirrors/parallels the ups and downs of relationships, tho all migrating birds return to the same places in and out of breeding seasons, and she proposes that friends are much the same.  Specht’s extensive writings on life in Kenya are very detailed, not overromanticized, and she shows us not only Flan’s ambivalence about both countries, but also the ambivalence of some of her Kenyan friends, about her level of commitment to them and their country. Specht has the reader care about this group of talented but wounded people, a great deal, even when they’re not behaving terribly well, and the novel is both a paean to friendship, a meditation on professional and personal futures for contemporary women, but also a fine example of excellent contemporary writing from a young woman novelist who has apparently lived part of her life in Kenya herself. Migratory Animals is a surprise, well delineated and structured, full of ambivalences and hopes and despairs, and also a lovely, lively anti-materialistic meditation on and about America’s young.

Specht is a big new talent, another of our talented pool of new writers, whose points of view about issues psychological and ideological are well worth reading and understanding, as their fiction is neither specifically polemical nor bat-you-on-the-head didactic.

–Daniel Brown


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