Ask Bob: A Novel [NOOK Book]

Overview


A wise, witty, sometimes heartbreaking love story about a pet doctor who discovers that the best relationships are often the most surprising

Dr. Robert Heller is one of New York City’s leading veterinarians, and his “Ask Dr. Bob” advice column is hugely popular among pet-lovers. Yet Dr. Bob understands animals a lot better than people, and he definitely could use some advice of his own—especially when it comes to his family. His father is angry and controlling, his mother is ...

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Ask Bob: A Novel

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Overview


A wise, witty, sometimes heartbreaking love story about a pet doctor who discovers that the best relationships are often the most surprising

Dr. Robert Heller is one of New York City’s leading veterinarians, and his “Ask Dr. Bob” advice column is hugely popular among pet-lovers. Yet Dr. Bob understands animals a lot better than people, and he definitely could use some advice of his own—especially when it comes to his family. His father is angry and controlling, his mother is nearly invisible, and his brother seems bent on destroying not just his own life but the lives of everyone around him. As for Bob’s wife, Anna, she is all but perfect, assuming one can ignore her own colorful but deeply dysfunctional clan. And then, just when Bob thinks he’s figured out what it takes to thrive in the human world as comfortably as he does among cats, dogs, and hamsters, tragedy strikes. How can he go on living when he is suddenly, soul-killingly alone?

In previous books, Peter Gethers has written charming true tales about what a man can learn from a beloved cat. Now he ventures into new territory with a funny, touching novel about a pet doctor who finds out what it means to be human, and what a family must do to truly become a family. Full of unforgettable characters, Ask Bob will remind everyone that sometimes we need a lot more than love to make the world go around—but that love is an awfully good place to start.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Dr. Robert Heller is a pet physician whose "Ask Bob" column and television segments has made him a favorite among canine and feline fanciers, but his expertise has apparently not translated into success with human relations. Surrounded by a persistently dysfunctional family, he relies on the effortless rapport of his beautiful wife. When her health falters and she dies unexpectedly, the pet-nurturing vet becomes confused and adrift, perhaps all too ready to find new love. Told from its main character's point of view, the novel is enhanced by "Ask Bob" pet advice snippets, some of which uncannily mirror his all-too-human problems. (P.S. Yes, he is that Peter Gethers, the feline-fancier author of the nonfiction trilogy that began with The Cat Who Went to Paris.)

From the Publisher
"[Gethers has] written thrillers along with best-selling accounts of Norton, his late, lamented cat . . . Now, appropriately for the dog days of August, he’s publishing a first romantic novel called Ask Bob, with dogs, cats, and a veterinarian named Dr. Bob. It’s quirky, heart-stirring, and commercial as all get-out."—Vanity Fair "VF Daily"

"[Gethers] tells this romantic comedy … but he transcends every cliché because he makes Bob a very complicated person with very complicated relationships … You have on the one hand the really brilliant comedy of life in New York now, and also the very serious story of all these things—loss, love, happiness—and how they all mingle and mix… A really, really enjoyable book."—Bill Goldstein, Bill’s Books, NBC New York

"A smart, lively novel infused with romance and heartfelt, real-life complications of family and domesticity."—Shelf Awareness

"A modern tale of betrayal and reconciliation, failure, forgiveness and family . . . Gethers sketches perfectly the character and motivations of Bob’s father and the evolution of Bob’s brother from hero to hustler. . . [A] redeeming story of life and love, loss and redemption."— Kirkus Reviews

"Ask Bob is a celebration of the complexity of human relationships."—Publishers Weekly

"A story about family—human, feline, canine and otherwise . . . In Ask Bob, author Peter Gethers has created a story with immense heart."—BookPage

"With poignant insight into the precarious nature of human emotions, Gethers . . . dramatizes what it means to be vulnerable and how the pursuit of love and desire for renewal can soothe even the most tortured soul."—Booklist

"A touching, funny story about the mystery of love – human and animal – that rings too true."—Carl Hiaasen

"Peter Gethers has written a beautiful, wise and poignant novel about love and loss that will break your heart one minute and have you laughing out loud in the next. Ask Bob is for everyone. There will be a sea of bedside lamps burning long into the night as you root for the broken-hearted to rise again, and you will not be disappointed. I loved it."—Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker's Wife

"Ask Bob is a funny, smart, charming, and relatable romp—with dogs! I enjoyed every page." —Julie Klam, author of You Had Me At Woof

Kirkus Reviews
In his latest novel, Gethers (Norton, the Loveable Cat that Travelled the World, 2011, etc.) spins a modern tale of betrayal and reconciliation, failure, forgiveness and family. Dr. Bob Heller has done well for himself, especially considering he's from a family suffering from "repressed neuroses, disappointment and...unfilled expectations." His grandfather was a prosperous manufacturer. His father rebelled, studied acting, found work in a soap opera but turned complacent. His older brother, Ted, much admired as Bob grew up, has somehow evolved into a narcissistic sociopath. College student Bob met beautiful and generous Anna while vacationing in Europe. They married. Shortly after graduating veterinary school, Bob was offered a job in Greenwich Village, with a free upstairs apartment, by a worthy mentor, Dr. Marjorie Paws. Dr. Bob even became a television personality and a newspaper columnist. Life is perfect, until Anna dies of stomach cancer. Phil, Bob's lifelong friend, believes someday we'll learn "life, at its core, was one grand, miserable, painful, ecstatic joke." Now Bob thinks that may be true. Gethers sketches perfectly the character and motivations of Bob's father and the evolution of Bob's brother from hero to hustler. However, Bob's mother remains unformed, at least until the narrative's latter portion, where her character blossoms to reflect Bob's deepening maturity. As he approaches 40, widowed Bob meets Camilla, an English-born physician serving with Doctors without Borders. The romance that ensues is passionate and volatile, with Camilla, full of anger and emotionally isolated, becoming one of the novel's strongest figures. Another is Hilts, Bob's nephew, crippled by Ted's manipulations and left "too disconnected and too self-protective and too...sad." Dr. Bob is likable enough as a protagonist, but his actions at a critical point in the story seem counterintuitive. The novel is rendered from Bob's point of view, with extracts from his "Ask Dr. Bob" column; his remarks there about animal behavior are intended to mirror elements of the narrative. A melancholy yet redeeming story of life and love, loss and redemption.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805098426
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/6/2013
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 218,987
  • File size: 668 KB

Meet the Author

Peter Gethers is the author of The Cat Who Went to Paris, the first book in a bestselling trilogy about his extraordinary cat, Norton. When not writing memoirs and novels, he is a screenwriter, playwright, book publisher, and film and television producer. He is also the co-creator and co-producer of the hit off-Broadway play Old Jews Telling Jokes, and one of the co-creators of Rotisserie League Baseball, which begat the fantasy-sports craze. He lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Part One

Anna

From the New York Daily Examiner:

Ask Dr. Bob

Dr. Robert Heller is one of New York’s leading veterinarians. Dr. Bob takes care of cats, dogs, birds, turtles, frogs, and many varieties of rodents. You can write to him c/o the New York Daily Examiner at 642 W. 46th Street, NY NY 10036 or e-mail him at DrBob@NYDE.com and ask him any question you need to have answered about the animal you love. His column runs every Tuesday in NYC’s most popular newspaper.

Dear Dr. Bob:

Our son just went off to college and my wife and I are suffering a bit from Empty Nest Syndrome. I want to get a dog to help ease the blow. I’m a serious bike rider and love the idea of a little four-legged guy running along beside me on my Saturday bike jaunts. The problem is, my wife is dead set against it. She feels the responsibility of taking care of him will fall on her. I keep explaining that it’s not a responsibility—having a dog is a labor of love, and once he’s a member of the household, she’ll be thrilled to take him for walks during the day and have romps with him in the park. She says I’m crazy. I’m thinking of getting one anyway, taking the gamble that he’ll grow on her. Got an opinion?

—A Hoped-to-Be Pet Owner in the Near Future

Dear Hoped-to-Be:

Yup, I sure do have an opinion. I’m with your wife: You’re crazy. Ask yourself this: Suppose he doesn’t grow on her? Then what? I remember a wise man once telling a friend of mine who was having a baby, “Having a child is not like having a dog.” Well, that wise elder was only wrong about one thing: Having a dog is not like having a dog—it’s like having a child! The exact same rules apply. At least they should. It’s a responsibility, and unless you’re prepared to sacrifice and keep sacrificing, you shouldn’t be taking the plunge. You sound as if you want all of the fun without taking any of the responsibility, and that’s a formula for pet disaster. Not to mention divorce. When you’re ready to go to your wife and say, “I don’t just want a dog to make my bike rides more fun, I want a dog I can take care of and feed and pet and play with, a dog I’ll come home from work for so I can take him on a good walk in the park at lunchtime,” then maybe you’ll be ready to fight the good fight. Right now it sounds as if you think having a dog is like owning some kind of cool toy. And if it breaks, you can just toss it. We’re not talking some kind of Wii version of a family canine. Being a dog owner is not something you can start and stop at will. There’s no magic button that makes everything end up the way you want it to end up. Trust me on this, though, Hoped-to-Be: When you get a dog, you’re entering into a relationship. You have to be ready for that relationship. And you have to want to commit to that relationship. Until you’re ready to commit to a serious, deeply caring, and loving one, stick to biking with your buds and leave our canine friends out of it.

—Dr. Bob

Chapter 1

I fell in love with Anna because of her laugh.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. What really happened was that when I met her, I heard the laugh—gentle but not delicate, more than a giggle, less than a guffaw, and it came with a smile, one that caught me by surprise and opened a quick glimpse into a world of delicious absurdity and wonder—and then she turned around and said something that made my heart ache. In the few moments before the laughter and heartache, I wanted to kill her. It was a brutal combination.

I was twenty-four years old, on a summer break from my second year of graduate school, midway to becoming a VMD, which is Latin for DVM, which is Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. I was traveling through Europe, taking trains from one place to another for the most part, hooking up with friends and acquaintances in various exotic places (or at least places that seemed exotic to me), spending much of my time alone drinking cheap wine, smoking excellent pot, reading dark thrillers or spare Scandinavian treatises on death and despair, and staring out windows while doing my best to ponder the essential questions of life. Occasionally, I sent postcards back home hinting at a vague cultural awakening, but actually I spent most of my energy trying unsuccessfully to pick up women in museums and cafés.

My only success came, a little bit to my shame, in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I was standing in the middle of the famous attic, trying to figure out how it was possible that the Nazis hadn’t simply looked up from the street, seen the top part of the house, and thought, “Hey, that seems like a good place to hide some Jews,” something I never did come to grips with, when I saw a girl wearing jeans and a tank top. Her back was to me at first; then she shifted her feet so she was turned sideways. While pretending that I was looking at some yellowed photos of Mr. Dussel and the Van Daans, I studied her more closely. She wasn’t beautiful by any means, but there was something I found very attractive. Her face was round and soft-looking, sensual in its fleshiness; her skin was smooth and cried out for touching. All that was extremely appealing. But mostly what attracted me was that no cool, good-looking guy with a backpack and a wire-chain tattoo on his bicep came up and put his arm around her while I was gawking. So I took a deep breath, strolled over, and started to say something about how I was alone and she seemed to be alone and that I wasn’t very good at this whole introducing-myself-to-women thing, when I saw that she was crying. That stopped me cold.

“I’ve made women cringe before,” I said. “And occasionally roll their eyes.”

She stared at me and it crossed my mind that she didn’t speak English, but I kept going. I figured it couldn’t get any worse. Not speaking English might actually turn out to be a plus in this instance.

“I even made one vomit once. Although, no matter what my friend Phil says, it was really the tequila. I was only peripherally involved.”

The crying seemed to slow down, so I sped up.

“But I’ve never made anyone cry before,” I told her. “At least, not this quickly. And not without running over her foot with a shopping cart.”

She looked like she was trying to smile. Or at least trying to stop the tears, so I thought the hell with it, skipped the semi-clever banter, and went for sincerity. I said to her, “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said, her first actual word. Then she added, “No, not really.” She sniffled a little bit more. “I’m just so moved by what I’m seeing and feeling.”

Her response was touching and also encouraging, because not only did I now know that she spoke English, but when she said things like “not really” she said them with some kind of a German accent (it turned out to be Norwegian), which makes everything, even when you’re sniffling about Nazi-related devastation, sound sexy. I wound up taking her out for a drink, and we talked for hours. During that time our mutual attraction grew. She started to look lovelier to me and she decided I was sensitive because I was going to work with animals when I got out of school, and then we went back to her hotel room and spent the night together. We didn’t actually have sex—instant passion with a Norwegian stranger was definitely not my lot in life—but we did sleep in the same bed and cuddled. The first night she wore a T-shirt and nothing else. The second night she wore nothing at all but still insisted on the whole cuddle thing. Even without the sex, being in bed with a very attractive woman with a cool accent within twenty-four hours of meeting her was thrilling for me and way more exotic than most of the places I’d been visiting. Then, on the third night, when we made love, it moved from thrilling to spectacular.

Immediately after that it moved to something else entirely because we wound up spending the next four days and nights together, during which time I realized that Joly—short for something long in Norway-speak that either meant Son of Joe or Forged from the Steel of Thor’s Loins—didn’t just cry at museums for Holocaust victims. She cried when she saw mothers yell at their children on the street, and at magazine covers that showed rehabbing celebrities, and when I turned away from her too soon after having sex rather than cuddling, and even when walking among ancient ruins in Rome (they prompted visions of the people who had once lived and played and worked there, which in turn made her unbearably sad because they had all shuffled off their mortal coil and couldn’t see that a two-thousand-year-old column they’d once leaned against had managed to outlast them). I also realized that all this crying wasn’t really so touching. It was pretty annoying.

Once that realization set in, I did my best to go my separate way. But I was lonely by that point in my travels, and I wasn’t very good at going my separate way, especially with someone who was so vulnerable that she teared up when the sun went down. Finally I wound up going with her to her friend’s parents’ vacation house on a small island off the coast of Sicily, which seemed more fun than making her cry yet again and traveling somewhere by myself. Besides, I only had a week left before I had to untangle myself from the relationship and return to the States and my last year of veterinary school. It turned out to be the right call. Because of Joly—neurotic, tearstained descendent of the Thunder God—my entire life changed.

The island off Sicily was called Favignana, and it was known for two things. One was its famed tuna hunt, written about as far back as the Iliad. People came from far and wide to watch the fun-filled spectacle of Favignanian fishermen herding thousands of tunas toward the island and then brutally slaughtering them. Even then, as a veterinarian-in-waiting, I could barely stand to see animals in pain. I especially did not like to see pain inflicted upon them by humans. But also, even then, I was learning to distance myself from the pain, so I could study it (some might say so I could stand it and cope with it) and possibly do something about it. In this case, however, there was nothing to be done. Inflicting pain on large fish was what kept the place thriving. So I did my best to accept the fact that I was visiting an island where a lot of people in boats felt very Hemingwayesque when it came to killing creatures of the sea, and where, as a tourist, one could buy an astonishing variety of dried tuna, tuna roe, canned tuna, tuna refrigerator magnets, and probably tuna-flavored toothpaste and rolls of toilet paper emblazoned with little silhouettes of tuna.

The other thing the island was known for was tufa—an ancient stone that had been excavated there for centuries. Every house seemed to be made of the stuff, which not only gave the island a distinctly medieval feel, it made every single dwelling look exactly like every other dwelling. As an outsider, I discovered that finding a specific home on the island was like looking for your suitcase at an airport baggage claim and realizing that everyone has the same Samsonite bag. The house that Joly’s friend Marcella’s parents owned was three or four hundred years old and built on a cliff overlooking the water. The walls were thick, which kept the house cool despite the staggering heat outside, and it was furnished, incongruously, with brightly colored couches and wall hangings from New Mexico. It was like staying in some weird cross between a Crusader castle and Graceland. I’d never seen anything remotely like it; growing up in a small town in upstate New York, I had never even imagined anything like it.

All in all, that house was my idea of perfection, except for the fact that Marcella was even more annoying than Joly. Unlike my depressed Norwegian, Marcella didn’t cry at the drop of a hat; she scowled. At everything. I’d compliment her on the breakfast she’d made, and she’d glare at me as if I’d taunted her. I’d make her lunch, trying to be a good houseguest, and her lip would curl up as if I’d insulted her cooking. Between the tears and the scowls, I had to escape, even just for a little while, so the third day we were there I went for a jog. When I announced my intention at eleven that morning, I could see Joly’s eyes go moist and Marcella’s jaw start to harden. I got out of there as quickly as I could, running a little bit faster and harder than I normally would have.

I was about twenty yards from the house when I realized that my chances of finding it again were, at best, fifty-fifty. Not only did every house on the island look exactly the same, I also had possibly the worst sense of direction of any person who actually had all five senses functioning normally. So I did something clever. On a road leading up a hill, I saw a sign for a little trattoria. The sign said, bar ingresso, and now I knew that no matter how lost I got, all I had to do was ask someone where the restaurant-bar named Ingresso was and eventually I’d find my way back. As an extra precaution, I did my best to memorize my jogging route. The whole time I was running, I would say to myself, “Okay, I just passed one street on the left,” then, “That’s a second street going off to the right,” and “Street number three, winding up into the hills.” I did that for about twenty minutes, which I thought was plenty, since I would of course have to spend another twenty minutes jogging back and by now the temperature felt like it had risen to about a hundred and fifty degrees.

I turned around and began backtracking. Fairly soon it occurred to me that my route looked completely different running in this direction. Within minutes I was a lot farther away from the sea than I thought I should be. But because I didn’t trust my sense of direction I just kept going, figuring that in another ten or fifteen minutes I’d recognize something—with a little luck, the Ingresso bar. After twenty minutes or so, I still hadn’t recognized anything. And I was now even farther away from the water: I couldn’t even see the shore anymore, although I was certain I’d been running parallel to it the whole time.

By this point I’d been running ten or fifteen minutes longer than I’d planned and had absolutely no idea where I was. Bar Ingresso was nowhere in sight. I also realized that because I’d made such a hasty exit from the house, I didn’t have any money on me. I didn’t know Marcella’s phone number. I didn’t know her address, or even what street she lived on. Or if her street actually had a name. Then it occurred to me that I had no idea what Marcella’s name was, other than Marcella. The other nice touch was that I didn’t speak a word of Italian other than grazie, ciao, and carbonara.

So I did the only thing I could think of: I kept running. Eventually I had to see the house where I was staying. Didn’t I?

When I hit the hour mark, the answer was starting to seem like a resounding no.

At an hour and fifteen minutes, I saw my first person. A car was coming toward me. I flagged it down, waving my hands, doing my best not to look like a lunatic. The driver slowed and cautiously rolled his window down. I politely said, “Speak English?” When he shook his head no, I spoke in your basic, sophisticated Chico Marx accent, saying something that was very close to “Excusa mio . . . Bar Ingresso? Knowa Bar Ingresso?” At first he looked puzzled—hard to blame him—but when I mentioned Bar Ingresso he nodded and pointed in the direction I was headed. I hoped the look in my eyes and the raised eyebrow somehow communicated the words “How far?” They seemed to do that because he said, “Due chilometri.” I said “grazie” seven or eight times and resumed my jog, this time happily. In about two kilometers, I did indeed get to a bar. But it wasn’t Bar Ingresso. It was also closed, and it looked like it had been closed since the last dinner party thrown by the Medicis. Deflated, I decided to keep going and quickly resumed my running. Moving seemed like a better alternative than simply lying down on the side of the road and getting parboiled.

I’ll spare you an account of the next two hours of my life except to say that it was pretty much the same as the previous hour and a half, only a lot hotter. Along the way I encountered three different people, none on foot, each of whom confidently sent me to a different bar, none of which turned out to be Bar Ingresso. When I encountered a fourth person—actually a small group of people—I went back to Chico Marx and did my best to say the following: “I’m a really stupid American, I don’t know where I’m staying or who I’m staying with, and I don’t have money, but could you please send me to Bar Ingresso?” When they stared blankly at me, I asked if they knew anyone named Marcella who lived on the sea. They beat a hasty retreat.

Somewhere around three p.m., I decided that Joly and Marcella would come looking for me. So I began to walk slowly—and “walk” is a slight exaggeration here; I was by now struggling to put one foot in front of the other—but whenever a car appeared in the distance, I’d raise my head, puff up my chest, and start jogging, so if my two hostesses really had formed a search party, I could tell them that I’d simply been running and had forgotten all about the time. Being a macho athletic machine seemed a lot more appealing than coming across as a total and pathetic loser on the verge of sunstroke.

At three-thirty I passed a small fire station and a park, which I was reasonably sure I’d passed an hour or so before. As far as I knew I’d been going in one direction, so I wasn’t quite sure how I could have passed something twice. But by this point I had stopped trusting anything that was emanating from my brain. And my trudging was on the verge of becoming something closer to a crawl, the hands-and-knees kind. Then, somehow, I found myself on a small, white-stone beach. (There’s no sand in Favignana, just white pebbles and crushed shells, a fact I discovered when I sat down, exhausted, and discovered that lying down on the lovely landscape was like leaping onto a red-hot table topped with crushed glass.) Since I knew Marcella lived on the water and I was now on the water myself, I took this little white beach as a very good sign that I was on the verge of finding my way home.

And here was another good sign: On that pebble-and-shell beach was one of the most stunning women I’d ever seen in my life, lying serenely on a towel a few feet from me, impervious to the pain of the shells and pebbles. She was wearing cut-off jeans and a bathing suit top. Her legs were long and flawlessly tapered. Her hair was medium-dark brown, streaked lighter from the sun and layered as it made its way down to her perfectly shaped shoulders. Her eyes were brown and oval and hypnotic. I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen anyone who was so beautiful in a nonintimidating way. She was so intoxicating that I didn’t give all that much thought to the fact that I was sweating more than Shaquille O’Neal after quadruple overtime, or that my skin was starting to blister in a way that made me look vaguely leprous. I just stumbled over to her and went into my new Vito Scotti impersonation, the by now almost rote I’m-a-dumb-American-no-money-no-idea-of-anything-except-I-have-to-find-Bar-Ingresso.

She looked at me strangely. I’d gotten extremely odd looks throughout the day, but this one had that special extra subtext of “Are you a dangerous lunatic or just a tragic, helpless lunatic?” But when she didn’t say anything, I finally said, “Do you speak English?”

She hesitated, then said, “A leetle.”

If I thought the Scandinavian accent was appealing, this Italian accent almost made my head spin, which wasn’t much of an accomplishment at that point. Still, it was pretty intoxicating.

“You want Bar Ingresso?” she now said.

I nodded.

“Nothing more?”

“Well,” I said, “I’d also like to find my friend or maybe even a hospital with an oxygen tank and a burn unit, but Bar Ingresso would be a good start.”

She looked at me blankly, obviously not understanding a word I’d said. Determined to help my cause, I said, “See, I was jogging, but I have a terrible sense of direction, so I memorized the name of a bar, Bar Ingresso, that was close to where I’m staying and . . . and . . . well, I’ve been running around the island . . . and . . .”

I degenerated into “and”s and “well”s because I perceptively realized I wasn’t actually helping my cause. I was making a case for commitment to a mental institution. But she must have seen something that touched her because she mercifully interrupted my blathering and said, “You want you should walk with me?” Then she shook her head fiercely, annoyed at herself. “You want I should walk with you?”

All I could think of was how beautiful her hair looked when she shook it that way, but I just said, “Bar Ingresso is close?”

“Close,” she mimicked, nodding. “. At end of . . . how you say . . . bitch?”

“Beach.”

“Ah yes. Beee-eeech. At end of beach.”

“Then yes,” I said, hoping I didn’t burst into tears of relief and giddy joy. “I would very much want I should walk with you.”

She smiled now, just a little slip of one, but it was more than enough for me. We began walking to the far end of the beach.

After a few steps, the beautiful, saintlike Italian woman said, “You look . . .”

She trailed off, shrugged in frustration, not coming up with the English word.

“Tired?” I said. “Burned? Frustrated? Stupid? Insane? Ridiculous?”

“No,” she said. “But okay. All of them.”

We walked across the beach, then up to a road, talking the whole way, me in my imbecilic nonlanguage, her in her poor English with the beautiful Italian lilt. Somehow we understood each other. We didn’t talk about anything important, but it was all very easy and comfortable. I learned that her name was Annabella and that she wasn’t from the island, just visiting a friend for a few days. I told her my name was Bob, Robert; she called me Roberto, and the way she said it made me loathe the flat, one-syllable version I’d used my entire life. I told her I was studying to work with animals, and she liked that. I asked if she was a model, and that made her laugh. When she laughed, the sunlight caught her hair and made it glow and my heart skipped a tiny beat.

As she led me down the road, I forgot about being lost and my Lawrence of Arabia–like past few hours and having no idea how I’d ever get my money or my passport. I certainly forgot all about Joly and Marcella, at least until they drove right by us.

Marcella stopped short, her tires screeching. She and Joly both jumped out of the car, Joly crying hysterically, saying she thought I’d had a heart attack and fallen and drowned, and I went, “What?” because even for her that seemed a tad melodramatic. Marcella scowled harder than ever and muttered ominously in Italian. Joly, as it sank in that I wasn’t dead, got angrier and angrier and then, noticing Annabella, angrier still. She started screaming at Annabella in English, who shrugged and tried to say she didn’t understand, so Marcella started yelling at her in Italian. She must have said something really awful because Annabella turned around and started walking away, without saying a word. And then, in remarkably short order, Joly took my suitcase out of the car and threw it on the road, and she and Marcella drove off. My first thought wasn’t that they’d just left me in some godforsaken spot, basically on my own; my first thought was to wonder why they’d bothered to put my suitcase in the car. I figured they must have expected to discover that I was floating in whatever sea Favignana was in the middle of, and they were either going to ship my belongings back to my parents or give everything away to the Home for Unslaughtered Tunas. At which point I began to wonder what the hell I was going to do now.

I bent down, rummaged through my suitcase, and found my money and passport—they’d done a very tidy and complete packing job. Suddenly I remembered Annabella; turning, I found her staring at me in total bewilderment. Happily, she’d made her way back to me after the two crazy women had left.

“Your girlfriend,” she said in halting English. “She’s very angry.”

“Not my girlfriend,” I said. And for some reason, I began to pour out the whole story. My first trip to Europe, and how I wanted it to change everything, only it hadn’t; traveling alone, which was exhilarating but lonely and isolating; going to the Anne Frank House and all the crying and scowling and how I was going to be a vet and only had a few days before I had to go back to reality. And how reality was starting to scare the shit out of me now, and I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that I felt as if I was on the verge of understanding something after my summer in Europe, even if I didn’t know what that something was. I told her everything I’d been thinking but hadn’t acknowledged, realizing I hadn’t even fully known what I’d been thinking until I spoke the words.

Finally I stopped babbling and said, “Oh shit, you don’t even understand anything I’m saying.”

,” she said. “I understand.”

“You do?”

.”

“Well, I’m glad. But I don’t see how, because I could barely understand what I was saying.”

She nodded and said, “There’s something I’d better tell you.”

I nodded back and said, “Okay.” And then said, “What happened to your Italian accent?” Because it had disappeared.

A look of deep embarrassment crossed her face. “Don’t kill me,” she said.

“Seriously. What happened to your accent?”

“I don’t have one.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m American.”

I said the following, I think without taking a breath: “What? No, you’re not! You’re Italian! You’re American? What the hell do you mean?

Now she was fidgeting. Even so, she projected a certain confidence as she confessed, as if she knew she’d do it all again if given a chance. “Well . . . you seemed so confused, and there was no one around, and I thought it’d be funny if I pretended to be Italian, just to see how long I could keep you going. I didn’t realize quite what a mess you were, and by the time I did I thought maybe you’d get angry so I just kept it going, figuring I’m never going to see you again anyway, so what difference does it make. And then when those two crazy girls came by, I didn’t want them to talk to me.”

“What was Marcella screaming at you in Italian?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t want them to talk to me. I don’t speak Italian.”

“What!”

“Well, that’s not totally true. I speak a tiny little bit. Enough to know why you couldn’t find your Bar Ingresso.”

“Why not?”

“Because ingresso means ‘entrance.’ ”

I said, “What?” for probably the hundredth time, but I wasn’t capable of coming up with anything more incisive.

She nodded, and that’s when I got the smile—the killer one, not just the little subtle one. “You’ve been going up to people saying that you’re lost and don’t have any money and all you need to do is find the entrance to the nearest bar.”

“Oh shit,” I said.

She nodded in agreement. “Yeah.” And with that “yeah” there was also a raised eyebrow and an even bigger smile. She didn’t bother to attempt to suppress it.

I was about to get really angry. At the fact that I was so hot and thirsty that I was on the verge of collapsing. At how humiliated and lost I felt. At my own stupidity. And mostly at her for making me feel even stupider than I already was.

That’s when she burst out laughing. She couldn’t keep it inside any longer; the smile was no longer enough to convey the sense of the day’s absurdity. It was an unusual laugh. Not violent in any way. More seductive than a giggle, and more grown-up. I could tell she wasn’t laughing at me. Well, yes, she was. But she was also laughing at the whole world, at all the craziness everywhere. It was a laugh that made you appreciate that craziness even though you wanted to run away from it. You wanted to run right into the arms of the person laughing at it.

Then I started to laugh, too. I couldn’t help it. It was impossible not to.

“You’re not angry?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Just tell me your name is really Annabella.”

“Nope,” she said. “Just Anna. I needed something that sounded more Italian, so I added the ‘bella.’ ”

“Oh my god.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

“But I know that I should be, if that makes you feel any better.”

She led me a few hundred feet away, and we got in her car. She didn’t invite me; it simply seemed the thing to do. And as she began driving—it was her friend’s car, the one she was visiting—the laughter turned into a remarkably comfortable silence. Remarkable because both things—comfort and silence—shouldn’t have been remotely possible at this point. It wasn’t broken until she asked me a question. She had a real talent for being able to veer from laughter to comfort to serious probing without making it seem anything but natural.

“The angry girl. Joly. What did you see in her? I mean, what possibly made you think it was a good idea to spend a week with her other than breasts the size of mutant watermelons?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I went quiet again, although this was a different kind of silence, because when Anna asked a question she asked it in a way that made you want to think about it so you could give her a worthy answer. “Actually, I do know,” I finally said. “It’s because everything seemed so sad to her. She took everything so hard. I thought she needed someone to be nice to her.”

“You were nice. But you could have left. You didn’t have to keep being nice.”

I shrugged. “It just didn’t seem right.”

“Is that why you want to be a vet?”

“What’s the connection?”

“Because you feel this compunction to make everything feel better?”

I thought about this. Shook my head and said, “No.”

“So what is it? Why are you so nice to small little animals and big-breasted women?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess it’s because I’ve always been better with animals than with people. And because I think the world’s a fairly fucked-up place. So sometimes it’s important to be kind. I find it a lot easier to be kind to animals. Well, that’s not quite right. I find that animals respond a lot better to my kindness. They don’t . . .”

I wasn’t sure how to finish my sentence. Anna finished it for me.

“. . . shit all over you? Like Watermelon Breasts?”

When I nodded, she cocked her head at me in such a curious way I felt compelled to ask, “Is that so weird?”

“No,” she said. “I think about this a lot. I mean the fucked-upness part. Sometimes I try to separate all the bad stuff from the good stuff, put the bad people in a different place from the good ones, you know? Think about what the difference is.”

“And?”

“And I think if you get rid of all the shit and all the bad stuff and just try to keep what we’re supposed to keep and strip everything else away . . .”

She hesitated. I told her I couldn’t stand the suspense.

“Well,” she said, “then I think all we have left is our kindness.”

I realized it later. Or, rather, acknowledged it later. The truth is, I knew it even then. My heart ached with an emotion I barely recognized. But I was sure I knew what it was. That’s the moment I fell in love with Anna.

I don’t know exactly when she fell in love with me—probably a few months after that—but the important thing is that eventually she did. So a little less than a year later we got married and set about trying to be kind to each other for the rest of our lives.

Copyright © 2013 by Peter Gethers

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Interviews & Essays

Ask Bob grew out of my interest (some might say obsession) with various things: the meaning of family, the often insane problems that families create, the importance — and the extreme difficulties — of making romantic relationships between human beings work, the complications that stem from our own pasts when they run smack into the complications of the present. But the novel really began to take shape once I decided that, at its core, it had to deal with perhaps my greatest obsession: the relationship between humans and their pets.

I'd always had dogs growing up and I loved them; from the Irish Setter that showed up when I was about 5 years old, to the cockapoo, Snoopy, we had during my teenage years, to the slobbering Golden Retrievers my parents got once I left the house to go off and become an adult, to the half-cockerspaniel, half tiny sheepdog, my brother had — a genius of a dog named Yossarian, whom I was lucky enough to have in my care one year when my brother was abroad. Yossarian would walk next to me, leashless, in the streets of Greenwich Village and he would wait patiently for me in front of laundromats and bodegas and bookstores while I conducted my necessary human transactions.

But my obsession with and deep, deep connection to our four-legged friends soared to a new level when I became entwined with my now-famous (and extremely handsome) Scottish Fold cat, Norton. I won't go into too much Norton detail here, but suffice it to say that he walked miles with me without a leash (this is a CAT we're talking about) and went to restaurants with me (sitting in his own chair), came to the office, traveled around the world by my side on every form of transportation imaginable, had an unerring sense of who was the right female humans to include or not include in my life, and taught me extraordinary lessons throughout his entire life and, ultimately, even while he was dying (in some ways, especially then).

So I guess it's not surprising that more than ten years after my last book about Norton, I decided to return to writing about the interaction between humans and animals — but this time using fiction to explore the themes I wanted to explore. Thinking about my favorite books that use animals as central characters and metaphors , it turns out that it's fiction (with one crucial exception) that best defines the human being/animal relationship, at least for me.

MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS by Gerald Durrell: This is the exception. This non-fiction book is not just one of my favorite books about animals, it's one of my favorite books of all time. It was the inspiration for The Cat Who Went to Paris and, as I write this, I realize it was probably a key inspiration for Ask Bob, since Durrell's brother seems to see little difference between the animals he loves and the family he has to cope with. The publisher and I had a lot of trouble agreeing on a title for Ask Bob and I also realize now that the perfect title would have been Durrell's, but it was already taken. It's brilliantly written, extremely funny, very smart, makes you desperately want to go to Greece, and is a deserved classic. Why this book isn't much more famous totally bewilders me.

IT'S LIKE THIS CAT by Emily Neville: When I was in the first grade (through the fifth grade, when I moved to California and switched schools), my school librarian took me under her wing and gave me first crack at every Newberry Award winner that came across her desk. One of the first ones she passed on to me — I had each book exclusively for a week before I had to return it, although I usually handed it back to her within 48 hours, having devoured it as soon as I got it — was this book, about a troubled teenager who can only relate to a stray alley cat that wandered into his life, until the cat helps him understand his family and find his first love. I went wild over this book. When I was on tour with one of the Norton books, someone heard me talk about this novel as an early influence and sent me a first edition. I read it as quickly as I did when I was a kid and loved it just as much.

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes : In a way, this is a perfect book about animals and pets because it's not REALLY not about animals or pets, it's about people and human relationships. This book illuminates perfectly the value of animals in our lives — and how that value is really shaped by (and in most ways created by) human perception.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB by E.B. White: Creating this list, I'm realizing for the very first time how all of these books really did play a huge part in my writing career — even though I read this book when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. Ask Bob is very much about grief. It's also, I hope, very funny. Well...um...I don't think there's a better book (with animals in it, I mean) that's ever been written about grief — that's also so funny — than Charlotte's Web. And I guess that combination really stuck with me all these years.

THE YEARLING by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: It was a borderline tie between this and Animal Farm. But I decided Animal Farm was so blatantly about people and not really about animals that this subtler version won out. Also: Just thinking about Jody's relationship with the fawn makes me burst into tears. The bigger question, I suppose, is why books about the ties between people and animals — when they all have to do with the animals dying — is so attractive to me. And so emotional. I guess you'll just have to read all of the above books to find out.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2013

    This book is nothing about pets. It is about a dysfunctional fam

    This book is nothing about pets. It is about a dysfunctional family and I read fifty pages and could not read anymore. I thought it was terrible.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 11, 2013

    One event can change family life forever. Veterinarian Robert H

    One event can change family life forever. Veterinarian Robert Heller faces eventful changes at work, through his weekly "Ask Bob" column, and at home. While each chapter may open with a weekly newspaper column, the story really focuses around Bob's imperfect life and struggling family. This fictional story is not similar to the family friendly James Herriot animal practice stories. It is about flawed and dysfunctional people, their actions, and consequences.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2013

    ok

    Ok

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2013

    I'm just cancelling out the anonymous review.

    I'm just cancelling out the anonymous review.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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