Feed My Dear Dogs
The Weisses are a tight unit of seven: father Yaakov, a gruff sportswriter whose love for his children is manifest in his stern instructions and impromptu boxing lessons; mother Frances, a wise and gentle beauty adored by her family, almost to the point of obsession by her husband; Ben, the most heroic of the siblings, by virtue of birth-order and also for knowing the answer to all questions; Jude, Jem’s almost-twin, who is only fifteen months older than she and the most serious of the children, careful to point out the anti-Semitic leanings of Jem’s literary heroes; Jem, the narrator, who would prefer to never leave the comforting confines of her family; delicate yet hilarious Harriet, Jem’s only sister, who can sound like a little old lady or a sultry vixen, depending on what movie she’s quoting; and Gus, the frail little boy who completes the circle at the beginning of the book with his birth and arrival home from the hospital.
Feed My Dear Dogs beings with the family in London, where eight-year-old Jem and her sister attend a convent school to the consternation of most of the nuns, since not only are the Weiss children not Catholic, but, most perplexingly, they are half-Jewish. Not surprisingly, Jem prefers home to school. At home she is surrounded by the books she loves, (particularly Tintin and Le Morte d’Arthur) and the comforts only a big, happy family can provide.
Soon, however, the family departs for Canada –“Dad’s country,” as the children see it–where together they begin a new life, shuttling between a Montreal townhouse and a country home, and adapting to their new land –even creating the “Weiss on Ice” hockey team. No matter where the family is, each member is fiercely loyal to home. From the use of short notes: “Out. Back soon. – Jude” to a simple “I’ll be up in my room!” yelled down the stairs, to Yaakov’s frantic bellowing of “Frances!” through the house, the family keeps close tabs on its members, which also allows Jem to subconsciously control it: “. . . my universe still the Universe, a place I wander with a slight swagger.”
But the comfort and security of family can’t last forever, Jem learns in high school, as Jude plans an extensive travel itinerary for himself and Ben contemplates moving out on his own. Meanwhile, Jem’s burgeoning feminism pits her against her father and brothers while she battles with a burden of guilt over the near-drowning death of her youngest brother. Spiraling into a breakdown by the story’s tragically beautiful end, Jem discovers that families simply can not remain fixed, like the stars in the galaxies, unchanged forever.
Intermingled through the story of the Weiss family are Jem’s (and her siblings’) encyclopedic knowledge of history, literature, film, religion and language. Richler also interweaves the almost mythic life story of Frances, the family’s matriarch, into the book, and provides glimpses into Jem’s troubled mind through a series of present-day conversations with her therapist, all of which serve to create a fully drawn portrait of Jem, her mother and the bond between them and the family as a whole.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Jude always said a kid is supposed to get acclimatised to the great world and society and so on, and just as soon as he can bash around on his own two pins, but the feeling of dread and disquiet I experienced on leaving home in my earliest days was justified for me again and again on journeys out,...
1. When Yaakov and Frances first bring baby Gus home from the hospital, Jem decides that the family is complete; “That’s enough knights! Now we are seven, our number is up!” she thinks, referring to the Knights of the Round Table. Why does Jem make this comparison? How else does Jem romanticize her...
“Jem is a literary gem.”
“There is an abundance of energy in Feed My Dear Dogs, a vitality and an emotional depth. . . . Feed My Dear Dogs is an intense and interesting literary project.”
–Winnipeg Free Press
“As a novelist, Richler can write quite the blue streak while still controlling the strings.”
“The Weiss clan remains an engaging, individuated family–an art-loving, art-making, frequently funny and sporadically endangered crew; one that could inherit the mantle of Salinger's Glass family. . . . At her focused best, she commands my full attention and, to paraphrase that hauntingly hypnotized American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, my heart opens to her. . . . Richler is an antic riffer in the finest jazz tradition and, at book's end, she blows this long solo about Jesus Christ, Ernest Shackleton, her sister Harriet and herself that is a room rocker.”
–Gale Zoë Garnett, The Globe and Mail
“A book shot through with love.”
–Quill & Quire
“She seems to have developed a new type of fiction, one that hangs like a haunting and curiously complex piece of art in the reader’s mind. . . . There are passages that give you goosebumps and there’s some hilarious dialogue. . . . In the same way a photograph or a painting can grab you or disturb you or flood you with sorrow, Feed My Dear Dogs is affecting. You finish it feeling you must hang on to it, even though you don’t quite know why.”
–The Vancouver Sun
"This is a glorious hymn of praise to family. . . . Richler uses a charming and cunning conflation of mature and immature vocabulary to capture childhood confusion. . . . Time and again, Jem’s world view made me laugh out loud. For all Jem’s anxieties, this is a joyful book about a joyful family."
—The Independent (UK)
"Jem's voice is a great accomplishment: confiding, ingenuous, with a convincing thirst for answers and approval. From delight in the discovery of new words and family in-jokes, to her schoolgirl disdain for custom. . . . But beyond the vignettes of a perfect childhood there is a dark undertow as the flow of observational comedy slips from childish prattle to damaged stream of consciousness. . . . The narrative is saturated with images of absence and loss: Shackleton in the Antarctic; Jewish history; Branwell Brontë's painting of his sisters from which he erased himself; the disintegration of King Arthur's Round Table. . . . a profoundly moving elegy for lost youth that bristles with intelligence, verve and wit."
—Scotland on Sunday
“Emma Richler's complex and moving first novel centres around the extraordinary and talented Weiss family...The handling of allusion is deft and understated; the narrator's stream-of-consciousness voice endlessly flexible, by turns charmingly frank and mysteriously obscure...Emma Richler has written a masterpiece; a brilliant and moving novel that defies description.”
—Matthew Alexander, Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Feed my Dear Dogs is a fierce and passionate summoning up of childhood...this is more than an extended feat of recall or an entertaining family portrait. The writing is flexible and confident. Brief lyrical passages, expressed in Jemima's hectic, heartfelt tones give the novel its meaning...There is a well controlled patterning of literary allusion designed to hide and reveal the undertow of sadness beneath the jaunty tone...Richler's long, brilliant autobiographical project can stand alone on its literary merits.”
—Lindsay Duguid, Sunday Times (UK)
“Not since Salinger has a writer explored the relationships between children and adults with such grace, tenderness and wistful amusement.”
“It’s a bittersweet family portrait, by turns witty and dark: one of those rare books you just don’t want to end.”
“Emma Richler’s writing has a personality all of its own. You return to it as you would to a favourite friend, for the warmth, the humour, the company. Her books achieve what only the best books can: they become companions.”
—Andrew Cowan, author of Pig
From the Hardcover edition.