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Reviews of Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett

Unlikely Animals

A Novel

by Annie Hartnett

Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett X
Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 368 pages

    Feb 2023, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book

Book Summary

A lost young woman returns to small-town New Hampshire under the strangest of circumstances in this one-of-a-kind novel of life, death, and whatever comes after from the acclaimed author of Rabbit Cake.

It was a source of entertainment at Maple Street Cemetery. Both funny and sad, the kind of story we like best.

Natural-born healer Emma Starling once had big plans for her life, but she's lost her way. A medical school dropout, she's come back to small-town Everton, New Hampshire, to care for her father, who is dying from a mysterious brain disease. Clive Starling has been hallucinating small animals, as well as having visions of the ghost of a long-dead naturalist, Ernest Harold Baynes, once known for letting wild animals live in his house. This ghost has been giving Clive some ideas on how to spend his final days.

Emma arrives home knowing she must face her dad's illness, her mom's judgment, and her younger brother's recent stint in rehab, but she's unprepared to find that her former best friend from high school is missing, with no one bothering to look for her. The police say they don't spend much time looking for drug addicts. Emma's dad is the only one convinced the young woman might still be alive, and Emma is hopeful he could be right. Someone should look for her, at least. Emma isn't really trying to be a hero, but somehow she and her father bring about just the kind of miracle the town needs.

Set against the backdrop of a small town in the throes of a very real opioid crisis, Unlikely Animals is a tragicomic novel about familial expectations, imperfect friendships, and the possibility of resurrecting that which had been thought irrevocably lost.


Emma Starling didn't come into Everton the way that took her by Maple Street Cemetery, so she didn't hold her breath when she drove by us, like she used to on the school bus as a kid. She didn't drive by the town square either, so she missed the celebratory sight when the four men and two teenage boys finally caught the wild boar. Emma hadn't seen the way they whooped and slapped one another on the back.

Boars aren't native to New Hampshire, but here in Everton, they often dig out underneath the electric fence to escape the private hunting park that spans the Upper Valley. The park is enormous, 26,000 acres, fenced in about 135 years ago by the nineteenth-century robber baron Austin Corbin as his grand retirement project; he bought up the land from farmers and shipped in animals from all over the world. The Corbin family went bankrupt after the world wars, and today the park is owned by a small club of anonymous millionaires, each member with their own hunting cabin. These ...

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Though Everton, New Hampshire, the town in Annie Hartnett's Unlikely Animals, is fictional, it becomes real through historical research, current events and masterfully drawn characters. This combination makes for a quirky small town like those of TV shows Northern Exposure and Gilmore Girls. The multiple plotlines — Hartnett says in the afterword that she combined several works in progress to write the book — converge thanks to the strength of the characters. And the ending left me not just satisfied, but full of warmth and gratitude...continued

Full Review (756 words)

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(Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin).

Media Reviews

BookPage (starred review)
Annie Hartnett's second novel, Unlikely Animals, is striking and richly imagined, with a voice that is wholly its own...The magic of Hartnett's novel stems from the balance of these weighty topics with the story's intrinsic playfulness.

Shelf Awareness
Wistfully charming...This unapologetically genre-bending tribute to life and death, and the beautiful weirdness found in both, has potential to spark exceptional book club discussions.

Booklist (starred review)
Hartnett masterfully balances a story of deep loss with the perfect amount of hilarity and tenderness.

Kirkus Reviews
Some plot twists feel a little more forced than others. However, the overall message—that any life lived, even just a few extra months of it, is a miracle rife with potential—is a balm for our challenging times. An anthem for the boomerang generation.

Library Journal
Embracing the undercurrent of fantasy in Everton, readers will contemplate how easy it is to write someone off as unredeemable or unhinged when maybe their brain works in a way most do not understand.

Publishers Weekly
Hartnett delivers a quirky ghost story set in present-day Upper Valley, N.H., inspired by the legacy of naturalist Ernest Harold Bayne...Hartnett's whimsical storytelling casts a spell.

Author Blurb Clare Beams, author of The Illness Lesson
No one is better at heart than Annie Hartnett—in the best, most layered, most complicated, and deeply human sense—and still Unlikely Animals stunned me. In a book rich with miracles, it's this complexity and expansiveness of connection that feels most miraculous of all.

Author Blurb Jane Alexander, actress and author ofWild Things, Wild Places
I love Annie Hartnett's mind. I can never predict the paths it takes me on. Unlikely Animals is fun, touching, fascinating, and delightful. I didn't want it to end.

Author Blurb Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State
Unlikely Animals is a wonderful love song to a place and the people who live there, past and present. It is a warm, joyful, generous novel about families and human frailty—an homage to the dead and a celebration of the living.

Reader Reviews

Cathryn Conroy

Quirky and Absurd: A Highly Imaginative, Colorful, Roller-Coaster of a Novel That I Highly Recommend
Quirky and whimsical. Peculiar and absurd. Is there a genre for eccentric literature? That's the best way to describe this highly imaginative novel by Annie Hartnett that almost gave me whiplash with the many sudden shifts, changes, twists, and turns...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes

Ernest Harold Baynes wearing a suit and drinking from a teacup which has a bird resting on the rimIn Unlikely Animals, Clive Starling pals around with a hallucination of Ernest Harold Baynes, a real-life figure sometimes called the American Dr. Dolittle. Through his deep reverence for animals, Baynes helped save bison in America, educated the public about songbirds and befriended all manner of creatures.

Born in Calcutta in 1868 to British parents, Baynes moved to New York City at age 11. He excelled in school and athletics, but he found himself indecisive during college. He toyed with the idea of a legal career, and for a time worked with his father, an inventor and amateur photographer. Typhoid prevented Baynes from being drafted into the Spanish American War, so he spent that time learning and writing for the New York Times.

In ...

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