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Reviews Sun Sep 12 2010

Review: A Dog's Purpose

adogspurpose.jpgA Dog's Purpose: A Novel For Humans
by W. Bruce Cameron
(Forge Books, 2010)

Told from the point of view of a dog trying to figure out the meaning of his life, A Dog's Purpose is essentially pet porn. Not in a perverse way, but, as promised in the book's subhead, it is "for humans." Humans are meant to read this book and say, "isn't this cute," and remember why they love their pets. As humor writer W. Bruce Cameron says in an interview, "I think this is a great book for someone who has lost a dog. I really believe that the central theme is that true love never dies..."

Having had love for a puppy myself, I wasn't immune to the cuteness of this book and its narrator. I teared up at the deaths of the dog narrator -- who goes by various names, but is called "Bailey" throughout most of the book. He is reborn multiple times throughout the book, sometimes after a too-early death and other times after a long, full, happy life. When Bailey dies after living with his beloved owner, Ethan, from childhood up until Ethan goes to college, when he is reborn in an entirely new place and "missed Ethan so much I sometimes whimpered," it's heart-wrenching. And I couldn't help but smile when Bailey watches Ethan's dad and grandfather exchanging "some harsh words" while peeling corn husks -- Bailey "wondered if it was a reaction to the fact that corn husks were inedible." It's Bailey's view of the world, and it's Cameron's way of telling the reader what's happening in the humans' world as well as in the dog's.

Even though we see Bailey as a puppy more than once, there is a huge difference between Bailey the first time we see him, surrounded by "warm, squeaky, smelly things squirming around" that he realizes are his brothers and sisters, to his rebirth as Ellie, displaying an unusual amount of intelligence to her (he was reborn this time as a female) owners that quickly train her as a police dog. With each rebirth, the dog learns something new, and we learn about Bailey's world with him, in a way that keeps us in love with this sweet, affectionate pet who only wants to make the humans around him happy.

One tiny thing kept niggling at me while reading A Dog's Purpose. I kept thinking about the research of an animal psychologist who I first heard about on WYNC's Radiolab. The writer of 2004 book Do Animals Think?, Clive Wynne questioned whether it's fair to animals to place on them human thoughts and emotions, which was what Cameron did. "We are surrounded on this planet not by things-like-people dressed in fur and feathers, but by myriad beings, each with its own unique psychology," Wynne writes. "As an animal psychologist, I can't think of any challenge more exciting than trying to understand animals in their own right and not just as dumber versions of ourselves."

Of course, Cameron is not claiming to be an animal psychologist in this book. He's a fiction writer, and Bailey is a likable narrator whom we as readers can grow with and learn to love, just like his owners. But when Dina Zaphiris of Animal Planet's Petfinder comments in a book blurb that "A Dog's Purpose is the most accurate window into a dog's mind I have ever encountered," it seems unfair to make that kind of claim. The book's purpose is not to really, truly get into the head of a dog -- it's to make humans re-appreciate their pets and remember the love that the dogs make them feel.

 

Heidi Brydon / September 12, 2010 5:18 PM

Ruthie,

I'm a big fan of this book, and with all due respect, I'm not sure why you, who are not a dog expert, are questioning the view of Ms. Zaphiris, who is. Even more prominant animal behaviorists like Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Marty Becker and Cesar Millan have similarly praised the book. Unlike The Art of Racing in the Rain which anthropomorphizes a dog (the dog teaches itself to speak by watching TV and muses on Buddhist philosophy) this book does a wonderful job of dramatizing how a dog might view the world.

Obviously it's fiction, and has a magical premise in that the dog reincarnates and remembers all its lives. But the reason that so many prominent "Dog People" have heaped praise on this book is exactly because it shows a dog who is...essentially, a dog.

By presenting this fictional version of a dog's world, the book is not only incredible storytelling, and a hilarious and deeply emotional read, it also can serve to enlighten people about a lot of issues around what we owe these creatures who give us such unconditional love.

But I'm glad you enjoyed the book regardless. No book fiction or non-fiction could ever accurately be in the mind of a dog because, well, they can't talk. They can't tell us. For all we know, they do reincarnate and remember all their lives.

As you said, this is fiction, and it's fun to suppose. This book really takes the reader on a wonderful, fictional journey. It made me love dogs more, and no matter what, that cannot be a bad thing, I'm sure we can agree on that!

Ruthie Kott / September 13, 2010 6:44 PM

Hi Heidi,

I am in complete agreement with you. I think that dog lovers or anyone who has felt the affection of a pet can identify with the book. As you said, the fiction, the narrative, is what makes it magical, not the fact that it's an accurate portrayal of a dog's thought processes. It's just something I kept in the back of my head as I was reading--because, as you also said, dogs can't talk, so we can never possibly know what's REALLY going on in their adorable heads.

Thanks so much for your response--it's nice to hear other opinions of the book.

Ruthie

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