Creatures: A Novel

  • By Crissy Van Meter
  • Algonquin Books
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Heidi Mastrogiovanni
  • January 2, 2020

A heart-wrenching story about a dysfunctional family struggling for redemption.

Creatures: A Novel

Creatures, the debut novel by Crissy Van Meter, is about a wedding much in the way that Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is about a family business. And as with, well, every book ever written (including The Godfather), Creatures will inspire a conflicting range of responses.

The novel is divided into four sections, corresponding to the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of a nuptial weekend. The setting for this story is a small island off the coast of Los Angeles. There is a dead whale lodged in the bay. The stench is overwhelming.

Let’s all raise a glass to toast the happy couple…

Evangeline (“Evie”) is marrying Liam. In just a few days. And he’s still not back from a commercial fishing trip. Plus, there are storms brewing at sea.

One significant person is there, however: Evie’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Her entrance into this ominous world does not improve things. Evie’s mother is immediately critical, a stance that has inflamed their relationship in the past.

From this tense beginning, the world of Creatures staccatos across time in disorienting style. Readers may find themselves thinking, “Wait, is he dead now?” or “She has a baby? When did she have a baby?” And yet, when the sentences come quick and fast and painful, they cut like knives and capture the reader’s attention.

For Evie, the distress of having been abandoned by her mother is never far from the surface when the two are together: “What I found: my mother wasn’t crazy; she just didn’t want me as much as I wanted her.”

The titles of many chapters conjure the natural world, little of it benevolent: Tsunami, Fog, Heat, Earthquake, Hail, Freeze, Thunder, Wildfire.

After the opening, the story immediately returns to Evie’s childhood. She has a father who loves her and who is also high or drunk much of the time. They are itinerant, living in rentals or on the hospitality of others, and sometimes finding themselves with no place to call home. Into this precarious existence comes Evie’s mother, on occasion. Her father always wishes she would stay. So does Evie.

She never does.

Evie’s childhood is on no level a “normal” one. Her first two-piece bathing suit was borrowed from either Missy or Sissy, actors in “Island Love, the semipornogaphic series,” who sometimes hung out with Evie and her father.

Her father makes much of his income by selling marijuana: “We called it Winter Wonderland. It was how Dad survived in the world.” Not the best candidate for Bring Your Parent to School Day.

Evie’s father promises he will never let anything bad happen to her, and then, during one episode of homelessness, he suggests they camp on a freezing snow peak because it will be an adventure. This back-and-forth, all of it seemingly the best he can do, is heartbreaking.

As an adult, Evie teaches at the Sea Institute. Some chapters are separated by pages that, by virtue of the titles, might be lectures from Evie’s course plans: “Killer Whale,” “Humpback Whale,” “Bowhead Whale.” Each of these sections begins with a scientific question or task, most of which are followed by a second-person-POV exploration of the intense layers and intricacies of Evie’s relationship with her father.

In “Sperm Whale,” the question is, “Is a sperm whale vengeful?” The answer begins with, “When your father lies to you, it will be the wave you’ve turned your back on. The one that hits you so hard that you scrape your knees on the ocean floor.”

If this technique seems gimmicky, any complaints are ameliorated with sentences like this:

“He won’t be the father you wanted, and he’ll never find the mother you need, but still, he’s yours and you are his, and you will have to navigate this together.”

Love and longing and disappointment, and questions of fidelity and trust, are everywhere on the island, right next to the fish guts and the majesty of the sea.

There are other significant characters in Evie’s story, but it is hard for them to compete with her parents. Indeed, given author Van Meter’s exquisitely succinct description of Evie’s mother — “She is the kind of woman who gets out of a moving vehicle” — it is likely that the intention was for this anguished triumvirate to remain in the forefront.

Creatures isn’t a novel for readers who savor a plot-driven, forward-moving tale. For example, there are occasional bullet points which interrupt the story with questions and statements, an unusual technique. Instead, this is a book for readers who savor a first-person narrative in which the protagonist asks herself many questions: “At night, I wonder whether I should be angrier, whether I’m incapable of saying how I feel or worse, whether I’m incapable of feeling how I feel.”

But there are moments in the story when kindness and grace and forgiveness take over. And they are unforgettably moving.

Heidi Mastrogiovanni is the author of the comedic novel Lala Pettibone’s Act Two (finalist for the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Awards) and its sequel, Lala Pettibone: Standing Room Only (Amberjack Publishing). With James Napoli (The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm), she is co-host of the “Movies Not Movies” comedy podcast. A dedicated animal welfare advocate, Heidi lives in Los Angeles with her musician husband and their rescued senior dogs.

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