Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Relationships between people and animals have always been great fodder for literature, from The Call of the Wild by Jack London to The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Animals bring out our empathy and parental instincts, or lack thereof, and often we love and care for them—and when they die, mourn them—just as intensely as we do human beings. Animals figure prominently in each story in Birds of a Lesser Paradise: some are pets of the main characters, and some are patients. (Many of the protagonists are veterinarians.) Bergman is as skilled at eliciting the reader’s sympathy for her animals as she is at rendering the complicated lives of her people, many of whom are strong-willed, even stubborn, and many of whom have just made or are facing major life decisions.
In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the unnamed first-person narrator works as a veterinary technician at a zoo. She has recently discovered that she is pregnant, which conflicts with her boyfriend’s political beliefs about zero population growth. Bergman is able to explore the depth and ramifications of these beliefs and what they mean for the characters’ experience of love and commitment without delving into the moral questions that surround abortion, yet she does not entirely dismiss the questions, either, nor does the surface attention paid to abortion come across as shallow. Several characters in other stories long to be pregnant, and some regret their performance as parents, as in “Another Story She Won’t Believe.” The protagonist is struggling to remain sober, not for the first time. She longs to connect with her daughter, but she has alienated her too many times, and she knows it. One cold night, desperate to care for a living thing, she absconds with one of her charges from the local Lemur Center, where she is a volunteer. In “The Urban Coop,” the manager of a community garden is trying to get pregnant with her longtime partner but is consumed with guilt for an inadvertent act of cruelty they perpetrated on their dog sometime before the start of the story. She blames her partner and fears they have acted so badly that her empty womb is a judgment upon them.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise is not a book about women who want babies. Aging parents, especially fathers, are another major focus of the book, such as in the title story, in which a daughter’s deep respect and affection for her bird-loving father are momentarily and critically overshadowed by her desire for a romantic interlude with a man they’ve just met. Respect and dignity are at the heart of all of the stories. In “The Artificial Heart,” which takes place in 2050, a woman helps her 91-year-old father find a girlfriend: “The dating service paired him with Susan—an octogenarian feminist who listed skee ball and container gardening as her primary hobbies. She was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. ... They’d been dating a month, and when he was lucid, Dad was smitten.”
Bergman is a literary writer with a trustworthy authorial voice who is not afraid to write seriously about the concerns of women. Though she infuses her plot lines and prose with humor, she refrains from making light of her characters’ difficult lives, even when the difficulty is of their own making.
Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 224 pages
This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 04/13/2012