Review by Tess Tabak
You know how sometimes, you can tell a book is written by someone fresh out of an MFA program? The writing is promising, but the plot is not quite there yet (for a story about a young girl struggling to fit in at school, there is much over-dramatization). The descriptions are sharp, but often overblown (almost every single item named gets three adjectives or descriptors, or sometimes random bursts of alliteration – “the professor had spent the entire hour enigmatically pushing peripheral points she hadn’t studied well.” The central character is a young misunderstood girl with a flowery name (in this case, Laurelie).
I was really with The Bobcat up until the last 50 pages or so. I rolled my eyes occasionally at the MFA program trappings, but it’s a short read and the simple thread of a girl overcoming trauma by pursuing a mysterious man was compelling enough to keep me turning pages.
Unless this book is supposed to take place decades ago, a lot of the twee harkenings back to old-timey things just don’t make sense – and if it is supposed to take place decades ago, there’s really no hint besides the way the characters are acting, and the lack of cell phones or technology mentioned. For example, Laurelie is postured as morally purer than all the fancy city girls at her college who read like one dimensional ‘mean girls’ because instead of wearing designer garbs, she makes her own clothing – even though nowadays, anyone who makes their own clothing probably cares way more about their appearance than not, since it’s much more difficult to make than to just buy something cheap at Old Navy or a thrift store.
Once Laurelie starts dating the hunter, a man she meets in the woods while she is babysitting, practically every other page has a description of his nostrils. I’m exaggerating a little, but not by much. Just to prove the point, I flipped to page 140 at random: “The hiker was crouching now, digging away at a bit of sand at the base of a plant, his nostrils pulsing gently.” Page 142: “She kept some distance between them, but was still close enough to see that his nose flickered erratically, and his eyes were damp.”
Aside from all that though, I was genuinely enjoying the book. It was a pleasant and enjoyable quarantine read, a book about someone healing PTSD from sexual assault through self-isolation and a new relationship with a mysterious man.
But given the ending, I can’t recommend this book.
There is a literal bobcat in the book, a pregnant injured animal that the hunter is tracking through the woods and caring for. The bobcat also serves as a metaphor for the hunter and Laurelie dealing with PTSD and trauma – wild, defensive, easily scared. I really did think it was just a metaphor – I wrote in my review notes, “The injured bobcat as metaphor is tortured but nevertheless the book kept me turning pages.”
While reading the book, I complained to my co-editor about the absurd number of times Laurelie’s boyfriend’s nostrils are described.
“Maybe he is literally a bobcat,” she joked.
“No! That would be too stupid.”
Then it turned out that the hunter was literally a bobcat – it involves science that acts like magic, randomly dropped into an otherwise overly serious literary fiction novel and suddenly introduced 75% of the way through the book. I’m fine with tonal shifts, but the problem is the book never changed tones, and the magic/science described also didn’t make sense in any way. Perhaps like many ambitious authors she was hoping to pull off magical realism- often incorrectly used as fantasy’s more literary cousin, no questions asked. I enjoy reading dumb fantasy with vague sci-fi-ish explanations – I loved Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series – but if you can’t offer me any explanation of why something is happening other than “It’s a virus – a magical virus that I got through gardening,” well, you can’t keep such an overly serious tone. Maybe a more skilled writer could have pulled off what Forbes Riley was trying to do here but this specific book is very much not pulling it off. Adding insult to injury, it’s also revealed towards the end that the hunter character is one-fourth Native American. Maybe not a good move to have a Native American character who turns out to have gotten literal magic powers through contact with the earth? The magical earth on a remote island in Maine?
That said I did genuinely enjoy the Bobcat, for the most part, aside from the very end. Katherine Forbes Riley is obviously a very talented writer, and I look forward to reading her next book.
The Bobcat is currently available from Arcade. The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.