Colby College associate professor and Portland resident Sarah Braunstein brings a Nabokovian touch to her second novel, “Bad Animals.” By turns hilarious and chilling, knowing and mysterious, the book is the story of a middle-aged librarian caught in the grips of literary, erotic and probably other obsessions.

Maeve Cosgrove loves the library in her small Maine town with a burning passion, feeding her love of literature in part by organizing author visits. The cultural coordinator position she’d created for herself didn’t come with a raise, but it puts Maeve in fleeting touch with presenting authors, the likes of Richard Russo, Elizabeth Strout and Richard Ford.

Everything seems to be clicking along nicely until Maeve is called to her boss’s office and told there has been a complaint against her for allegedly spying on two teenagers making out in the mezzanine bathroom. Maeve is shocked at the accusation, made by a teen patron named Libby.

Maeve responds with indignation, but she also develops a probably unhealthy interest in her accuser, signaled by a chapter containing nothing more than “Libby” written hundreds of times, a la Bart Simpson’s blackboard or Jack Nicholson’s typewritten pages in “The Shining.”

As a library investigation ensues, Maeve is invited to take her mind off matters by traveling with her husband, Jack, to Ohio on business, followed by an extended stay with his ailing mother in Tampa. Maeve stays home. She has time to “stew in her juices” as Jack puts it, and begins plotting ways to restore her good name.

Left on her own, Maeve doesn’t seem able to maintain good connections. Communication with Jack is strained as her absent husband continues to urge her to join him on his travels. Maeve feels especially abandoned by their daughter Paige, who is a science whiz, off performing “gonzo” botany experiments in Uganda. Maeve turns to an online coach who charges by the hour, but seems to deliver little more than the latest self-help platitudes.


Though the outraged Maeve is cleared of wrongdoing at the library, she’s shocked to learn that she is nonetheless being laid off, supposedly for financial reasons, that her departure has nothing to do with the allegation against her.

Even more galling than the abrupt dismissal is the news that Maeve’s favorite writer, best-selling literary author Harrison Riddles, has finally agreed to speak at the library after four lengthy and unanswered invitations sent by Maeve, with zero acknowledgment of her efforts. “I’m the one who invited him,” she complains. “And now I’m fired.”

Riddles holds a special place in Maeve’s personal pantheon of authors. Her enthusiasm about a theoretical Riddles reading doesn’t initially extend into Stephen King territory, but there is an undeniable “Misery” vibe in the way she views herself as Riddles’ Number One Fan in the library.

Not that Riddles shouldn’t expect some invasion of his privacy. Braunstein writes, “He’d sat on Oprah’s famous couch with his legs overspread. She remembered that Katrina (a younger colleague) had forwarded her an article on Jezebel called ‘The Very Big Testicles of Harrison Riddles.’ The writer had used this one image – thighs a proud V – as a springboard for a larger discussion of overspreading from a woman’s point of view.”

It is Katrina who is first welcomed into Riddles’ inner circle, along with Katrina’s boyfriend, Willie, a Sudanese refugee. Maeve has considered Katrina a good friend with admirable toughness, someone who’d “been mugged while backpacking across Europe and had actually elbowed the mugger in the jaw.” But Maeve is confused as Katrina recounts dinners with Riddles she attended with Willie, with whom Riddles would like to collaborate on a novel.

It is Katrina and Willie who urge Maeve to enter Riddles’ circle, as “another set of eyes” on the self-absorbed author who envisions his novel based on Willie’s refugee experience. To what extent will little bits of Willie’s African life just get picked up and appropriated, used for somebody else’s purposes? Eager to join in, Maeve may have obsessive objectives of her own.


The author of “The Sweet Relief of Missing Children,” Braunstein has concocted a sharp-eyed comedy/drama in her sophomore effort, featuring a near-omniscient narrator who can’t quite be trusted.

In its best moments, “Bad Animals” might remind readers of another comic novel, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” That 1962 novel features a deluded scholar, Charles Kinbote, who believes he is heir to a European crown. He wreaks destruction when he becomes obsessed with a poet on the faculty. That tale of obsession both creepy and sneaky is told so unreliably that the reader can never be certain of what is actually happening in the narrative.

Everything is up for grabs with this kind of unreliable narrator. Unpredictability is a virtue, and “Bad Animals” features a small assortment of viewpoint characters, all with conflicting worldviews. Maeve’s behavior assures, as with Nabokov’s Kinbote, that all the questions raised will never be answered.

Other than an insolent raccoon, there’s not much actual wildlife evident in “Bad Animals.” But the human characters exhibit a feral rapacity as they pursue their dreams of literary acclaim and sexual connection. It’s easy to laugh at Maeve’s insecurities, Katrina’s ruthlessness or Riddles’ self-regard, but each character has darker shadings that render them dynamic and memorable.

“Bad Animals” is good, bad fun.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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