Book Review: Home with Henry (Anne Kaier)
Reviewed by Maura Madden
The plot of Home with Henry: A Memoir by Anne Kaier at first appears so simple that it is surprising it can fill a one hundred page book. The narrator, Anne, comes upon an injured feral cat in the road while driving home. She takes the cat to the vets to be healed and neutered. Then she names the cat Henry and brings him home to live with her and her older cat, Lucille.
The charm of this memoir is in the details of the story. Kaier tells the story in a journal format. The journal begins on March 17, 1997 when Anne first encounters Henry and it covers a period of just over eleven months. The reader is introduced to and becomes familiar with Anne in the same slow, gradual manner as Anne learns about Henry. The ambling pace of the story allows Kaier to share many small details about both Anne and Henry; giving the story its intimate feel.
The memoir focuses upon Anne bringing a scared, feral tomcat into her home and the long process of assimilating Henry into the household. Henry moves into Anne's third floor guest room and it is over a month before she can even coax him from under the bed. The turning point in the story comes when, on May 17, Henry first ventures from the guest room. Anne notes the significance writing, "It's two months to the day since I picked Henry up in the road. Hurray for Henry! He's alive and warm and beginning to explore."
The feeling of belonging is a major theme of Home with Henry . Anne is a single, 50 year old woman. She has recently purchased a home and explains why she has waited so long. "For twenty years, I'd jumped from one apartment to another, figuring, as many women of my generation did, that I'd move into a house when I married…I'd finally stopped waiting." At the time when she finds Henry, Anne is still becoming familiar with her townhouse. She is still learning to think of it as her home. She is very attached to her cat Lucile and worries about losing her and being left alone in the house. Henry has been wild and this is his first home. While becoming accustomed to domesticated life, Henry and Anne become comfortable in this new setting together. Henry develops his own role within the household and Anne is reassured that she will not be left alone. As they settle into life together Anne realizes, "I love…the sense of living my life alongside two other lives…Is this a substitute for family life? Perhaps."
Anne refers several times to her psoriasis and lists this as one of the challenges she has had in finding the right man to settle down with. She also feels sorrow over not having children. These sorrows help her relate to her cats and the difficulties they must overcome. When she adopted Lucile, Anne had her declawed, an act that Anne greatly regrets. She describes Lucile being unable to climb the tree in her yard because of her missing claws. Lucile is at a disadvantage to the neighbor cat. At the time she had her declawed Anne had little knowledge of cats or understanding of the implications. Now Anne feels guilt, but also seems to feel closer to and more protective of Lucile because she lacks claws. Henry is an able bodied cat, he has no physical disability. His unstable background, however, triggers Anne's sympathy. Anne's references to her skin problems appear linked to her desire to be a champion for the cats. She discussed the declawing of Lucile and her decision not to declaw Henry saying, "What was I thinking? Worrying about the silly furniture. My dry skin dots the slipcovers and I don't like it, but I put up with it. A couple of cat scratches won't ruin the sofa."
Kaier makes a feminist statement in this memoir. A single, middle aged woman with cats has become a common punchline. Kaier, however, turns this stereotype on its head by showing a woman who fits the "cat lady" persona without being crazy, sad, or lonely. Anne is a successful professional who owns her own home. She has a loving family in her brother and his children and many strong friendships including Cathy and Andy. She is not a crusty old maid, but is young at heart and enjoys toy stores and swimming in the muddy creek. Anne is single by choice, because "all of the guys I like are quirky." She grows close to her cats and enjoys their companionship but refutes the stereotype, saying "I think I'm clear about the difference between kids and cats." Rather than a sad character who takes refuge in her pets, Kaier shows us a strong, independent woman who recognizes the emotional befits of having cats to love and touch as just one aspect of a full life.
Anne describes her purchase of the city townhouse in the same journal entry as she discusses Henry's hiding place under the bed. Henry has lived in the wild and now he has "found a safe hiding place" in the guest room. The memoir shows Henry's transformation from a scared, hiding cat into an adventurous, playful creature. He adjusts to the middle ground of living within the confines of a house and garden but not hiding. Anne also adapts to the new home and grows comfortable there while still seeking out open spaces such as her garden, the creek, and the river.
The contrast between open and confined spaces plays a large role in Kaier's memoir. Anne has a great appreciation for nature and the outdoors. She had hoped to buy a home in the suburbs to be surrounded by trees and grass, but decides upon a townhouse in the city. Through her house search Anne discovers the irony that in order to enjoy the physical openness of the country she would have to live in a "crackerjack house" or a gated community. She realizes "I did not belong in a gated community. I hate places that exclude other people, closing their doors to the swirl of ordinary life. For that matter, limits of any kind make me thrash about." So, she must move the confines of the city in order to live in an open social environment near "interesting single people."
A subplot in this story is Anne's quest to find the stairway access to the Schuylkill River. She has been told it is near her house but has been unable to locate the stairs. Anne comments upon the river frequently in her journal. She believes it will give her relief from her city life. Towards the end of the book, Anne's friend Cathy shows her the stairway and this has a big impact on Anne. "Now I knew I could go down and walk along the river whenever the mood struck. I'd found the openness and ease which the natural world brings me, even in the city." Anne begins taking independent walks to the river in the same journal entry in which she realizes that "the house sounds have become familiar." Anne has been seeking the freedom of nature and security and comfort in her new home at the same time. They had originally been set up as contrasting goals, but Anne has learned that they are actually compatible.
Kaier successfully weaves multiple themes into her simple memoir. She shares a touching story about the developing relationship between a woman and a cat. More significantly, she provides a view of the complex thoughts and feelings of a woman during a transitional period in her life. She shows us the importance of patience, perseverance, and creativity in helping others and illustrates how these same traits may aid in our own adjustment.