Few things these days are as likely to land a book on the nonfiction best-seller lists as a dog—particularly one whose incorrigible mischief, heart-rending rescue, or fraught integration into the author’s life sparks a realization about love, kindness, or What’s Really Important. In the post-Marley and Me publishing landscape, the dog-as-harbinger-of-wisdom grows ever more ubiquitous, and though Marley was written by a man, more and more of the writers who are following his lead seem to be female. The dogs at the center of these books are, in turn, ever more exceptional, the kind of dogs who double as life coaches and inspire titles like these: Maggie: The Dog Who Changed My Life, Blind Hope: An Unwanted Dog and the Woman She Rescued, and Paws and Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs.
If this month’s additions to the canon are any indication, the women’s dog memoir trend is going strong. (If not expanding: Does Part Wild: One Woman’s Journey With a Creature Caught Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs foretell a burgeoning wolf subgenre? We’ll have to wait and see.) Jill Abramson, the new executive editor of the New York Times, has expanded her popular column, “The Puppy Diaries”—which chronicled her first year with her golden retriever, Scout—into a book of the same name. The result is a pleasant mash-up of memoir and light journalism tracing Abramson’s journey from the death of her previous dog, Buddy, to the full acceptance of Scout as his replacement, with moments of reportage as Abramson consults various canine experts along the way.
Abramson is blunt about the fact that Scout is in some ways a replacement for her children, who have recently left the nest. (In her telling, the pup’s care is often as involved as childrearing—from errant urine to first day of kindergarten to selecting a health insurance plan.) That Scout shows up after Abramson’s kids leave home raises an important point: She has kids. Abramson also has a thriving career, many friends, and a long marriage, all of which are described in the book. The joys of family and fruitful work also figure prominently in Julie Klam’s Love at First Bark: How Saving a Dog Can Sometimes Help You Save Yourself, also out this month.
In these memoirs, dog women have it all (or at least they get it all by the end of the book, as in Klam’s case). For both Klam and Abramson, a dog (or several) is what completes an idyllic life—certainly not a cat, with its time-honored connotations of isolation and neurosis. Just as movies and TV shows never tire of telling us that cats are the purview of the sad-sack single girl, these books reiterate the notion that dogs go with family. Dogs are the sweet surprise you put under the tree for your kids. They’re friendly, sociable, fun-loving—not so different from what our culture seems to want of its women.
For Abramson, the rewards of dog ownership include everything from better health to professional success. Long walks with Buddy, Abramson tells us, helped her muddle story ideas for the Wall Street Journal (where she was a reporter in the ’90s), once provoking a realization that led to a big scoop during the Clinton impeachment: “Buddy, my silent partner, deserved to share the byline on that story,” Abramson writes. She also finds that dogs are the ultimate conversation starters; indeed, several of her friendships rest on the furry backs of pets. Passers-by stop to admire Buddy on his evening walks, introducing Abramson to many of her neighbors. Both Buddy and Scout enjoy the local dog run, where Abramson chats with other dog parents. She even joins a morning dog-walking society called the Breakfast Club.
When Abramson suffers a horrifying injury—in 2007, not long after Buddy passed away, a delivery truck struck her, shattering her pelvis and femur—she credits her quick recuperation to the many years she spent walking Buddy. As Abramson haltingly regains her mobility, her nearest and dearest urge her to take the plunge with another pet. “… As I struggled to recover from the accident and my depression, they were certain that what I needed above all else was a new dog.” Which is where Scout comes in, of whom Abramson says, “I have no doubt that I recovered more quickly … because of her.”
This dog-as-panacea ethos becomes far more explicit in Love at First Bark. The slim collection of vignettes—each centering on how a dog Klam rescued returned the favor in some way—is a follow-up to You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, in which Klam dreams about the perfect Boston terrier, finds and adopts him, begins to think of him as her doggie husband (“You’re in love with this dog,” her therapist says, without irony), and ultimately learns the difficult art of thinking about others’ needs. In short, Klam writes, “within six months of adopting him, I grew up.”
Alas, growing up is just the beginning, as Love at First Bark makes clear: After Klam finds a human husband and they have a baby, her marriage is tested by financial headaches—but maybe more so by her need to take in practically every wayward dog she encounters, regardless of how many she already has waiting at home (or, as in one instance, how “fecally incontinent” the pooch may be). It’s only when she and her husband join forces over the course of an afternoon to save an abandoned pit bull that their bond is fully restored. The name of that chapter? “Morris the Pit Bull, Couples Therapist.” While pop culture has it that cats and connubial bliss are a nearly impossible pairing, dogs and dudes are not mutually exclusive. Hell, your pup might even curb your man troubles. (Similarly, babies and dogs can also peacefully coexist—though the new Animal Planet show Puppies vs. Babies contends that there can be only one winner in the Battle of the Cute).
The “this is the thing that saved me” construction is nothing new among popular memoirs by women, whether the catalyst for sunny renewal is Prozac or yoga or even an intercontinental whirlwind of not just yoga but also food and sex. That these memoirs should count dogs among those life-changing phenomena isn’t unreasonable—anything can fit under that umbrella provided one is already looking to be changed.
Almost anything, that is, but cats.
In sitcoms and movies, and increasingly on our bookshelves, we’re told that dog ladies engage with the world and take charge of their lives, while cat ladies stew unattractively in their sad studio apartments, waiting to die alone and have their faces eaten off. There’s a big difference between the social, accomplished—and married—dog woman, and, say, Angela Martin from The Office, who once brought her cat to work; either of the decaying Edie Beales of Grey Gardens, who were animal hoarders long before the term was coined; or that recurring unkempt crone on The Simpsons who yells gibberish and throws cats at people.
Nobody gets the curse of the cat lady like Tina Fey: When Liz Lemon underwent a painful breakup in the most recent season of 30 Rock, she embraced her now certain spinsterhood with a new cat she named Emily Dickinson. Liz, we intuitively understood, had finally given up hope. What “cat lady” really means is “quitter.” Because in our culture’s estimation, cat ladies only get to be one thing: lonely. Dog women, by contrast, can be rugged outdoorsy types, prissy Chihuahua-toting Paris Hilton types, or even brilliant, chicken-farming women-of-the-world types like Susan Orlean, whose recent biography of Rin Tin Tin isn’t a dog memoir, but whose love of canines and other creatures receives considerable and favorable ink.
However many women may hit publishing gold with dog-centered memoirs between now and whenever the current memoir craze peters out, it is hard to fathom a comparable number of cat memoirs. If the dogoir is to be believed, canine companionship makes a woman normal and well-adjusted. Who would possibly buy this storyline if the pet in question were feline? Cats are weird and neurotic. They startle easily. Only occasionally do they deign to interact with others. Surely readers want their (human) protagonist to stop savoring her solitude, to stop thinking so much about herself, to get the hell out of the house.