Migratory Animals is Specht’s first novel and it’s a big one. She tackles difficult subjects like Huntington’s disease and mental illness, but also emigrating, friends versus family and the disappointment of our current economy.
During the book we follow two sisters and their group of friends. Flannery feels like the center of the novel and conveniently she has lots in common with the author. Flannery is a snow-scientist who moved to Nigeria to participate in a study, but there she falls in love with the country and a man, Kunle. Having to go back to the US for further research, she leaves the man of her dreams behind and lands back into her old friend group. She immediately sees that her sister is ill, recognizing the same symptoms her mother displayed while dying of Huntington’s. This of course throws her for a loop. Should she return to her amazing life in Nigeria or stay and help her sister?
The book has a large scope, not only tackling all of the mentioned subjects, but also a large amount of people. Besides Flannery we read from the point of view of her sister Molly and their friends Alyce, Santiago and Harry. The male characters are definitely the side characters and sometimes reading from their point of view felt like stalling the story. All they did was gush and worry over the women in their lives, trying to figure out how to make them love them again. I think Specht did a much better job writing from the female perspectives, giving life to Molly, Alyce and Flannery and their own set of problems. The characters were well written, but definitely not likable. Of course they don’t need to be, but sometimes their well-roundedness rubbed me the wrong way. All of them are highly intelligent, highly creative people. They are either successful scientists or struggling artists, but none of them are boring. Sometimes I felt like I had landed in a Brooklyn-Benetton add where everyone is interestingly diverse while debating the political state of some far away country no one has heard off.
To me, the relationship between Molly and Alyce, two women dealing with death, was the highlight of the book. Their morbid relationship, and how death is constantly looming over them, made for an interesting and sometimes heartbreaking story. Flannery is the link between these two, as the sister and best friend, but her character annoyed me more than all the others. Her almost religious love for Nigeria reminded me of people who’ve been on vacation to India and then will not talk about anything else for a month. But just like with those people, her love and new found spirituality seems to fade rather quickly at home and she pours herself into her work again. Anything not to deal with her emotions about her sister’s illness. If the relationship between Flannery and Molly had been even half as intriguing as the one between Alyce and Molly, this book would have been much more interesting and heartfelt. It would have also been much more depressing, but I think a story of this magnitude should be able to bear it.
Migratory Animals is then definitely an ambitious debut novel. Sometimes it feels a bit too full, too filled with people and ideas and hardship, but Specht handles the topics with grace and knows how to write. The book tried a little too hard for me, not just incorporating all of the ideas, but also at staying hopeful and respectful towards everyone. The book felt too soft and sweet for all the awful things that were happening and I would have liked to see Specht delve deeper into these feelings without shying away from them.
This review was written for American Book Center’s You Review. The advanced reading copy of Migratory Animals was gracefully provided by ABC.