On one level, Kate Milliken’s dark and beautifully written debut is the story of three young women whose lives become inextricably entangled one summer. On another level, it’s a meditative, multigenerational saga about love, loss, the inheritance of trauma and decades-long secrets. The novel alternates between two different periods, settings and perspectives, offering insights into how one generation’s actions shape the next.
The coming-of-age storyline unfolds over the summer and fall of 1993, when wildfires ravaged the Southern California landscape. Rory, June and Vivian occupy radically different socioeconomic worlds, but emotionally, their lives are similar. All three girls are grappling with their sexuality, and all three have difficult, neglectful parental relationships.
Rory is the talented and hardworking daughter of a barmaid and an unknown father. (All her mother will tell her is “Your father wasn’t anything.”) She develops intense, complicated relationships with both June and Vivian. Rory’s loving but deeply flawed stepfather, Gus, cares for Rory and takes her under his wing, bringing her with him everywhere and teaching her about horses. Their bond and much of the novel’s action revolve around the world of ranching.
Unfortunately, Gus is also an alcoholic who ends up failing himself and those he loves. The negative consequences of Gus’ actions reverberate far and wide, yet he’s one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. That duality is part of what makes this novel so absorbing, even as tragedies accumulate to an almost overwhelming extent.
In the second timeline, which takes place in Wyoming two decades later, at least two of the main characters have made it out alive, but an undeniable sense of loss still hangs over them. It’s in that context that Rory’s daughter, Charlie, investigates the events that have shaped her family, including what happened to her mother that summer in California.
These questions, and an indelible sense of mystery, propel the story forward despite its sometimes languid pacing and sense of incipient tragedy. Vivid, lyrical prose further enriches the novel’s appeal. It’s fitting that this novel bears an epigraph from a short story by Annie Proulx, as Milliken’s style is sometimes reminiscent of Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Much like Proulx’s masterpiece, Kept Animals is a wonderfully complex story that’s well worth reading, but no one should go into it expecting romance.