Caroline Knapp is a 38-year-old writer whose living companion and primary love object is Lucille, a 2-year-old shepherd mix. Knapp sleeps with Lucille; walks her three times a day; has held birthday parties for her “in which Frosty Paws, a canine version of ice cream cups, are served”; and has “written off or vastly reduced my involvement in activities that don’t include her — shopping, movies, trips that involve air travel.” “Pack of Two” is Knapp’s paean to her human-canine love affair.
Knapp and I share a gender and a generation, an interest in words as well as the fact of living with an animal (in my case, a cat) rather than a human companion. Nevertheless, “Pack of Two” disappointed me. Asking a cat lover to review a dog book is perhaps like asking Camille Paglia to review the latest Gloria Steinem. Many of Knapp’s detailed descriptions — of the difficulties of obedience training, for example — rang no bells for me. Cat training is limited in both method and results: a litter box, a water gun and the patience to shout “Snowball! No!” repeatedly will produce a housebroken cat that won’t scratch the furniture very often. By contrast, the desires of the dog owners Knapp writes about can seem excessive: “‘What I really want to do’” claims one, explaining her discomfort with leash-correction, “‘is negotiate with my dog.’”
Species preference aside, however, “Pack of Two” reads more like a meditation on unresolved feelings than the exposition of an alternative kind of love. Although Knapp aims to reject the “common view, that people turn to pets for love and affection by default, because ‘real’ (read: human) love and affection are so hard to come by,” Knapp’s own account tends to fall back on just such therapeutic clichis: “The dog offers a kind of corrective emotional experience, allows us to both give and receive what we haven’t quite gotten in our human relationships.”
Knapp’s defensiveness about this relationship makes for an “us against them” atmosphere disconcerting to the agnostic reader. Ranged on one side are the dog-loving “we” — meaning Knapp herself and other dog owners, who say things like, “Of course, dogs are a metaphor for change” and provide statistical assertions of the validity of Knapp’s feelings (“anywhere from 87 to 99 percent of dog owners report that they see their dogs as family members”). On the other side, Knapp posits an uncomprehending world: “Let on the depth of your true feelings about a dog … and you risk being accused of any number of neuroses,” she warns. Too bad; but the world offers graver accusations and greater risks, and it is annoying to the reader to be constructed as an insensitive interlocutor, unable to appreciate dog-lovers’ “joys that are exquisitely simple and pure.”
Certainly the objects of human love are more varied than is generally let on in books, movies and music — all obsessed with heterosexual coupling. People can form profound connections with animals, with causes, careers, religious paths — even, as Knapp’s previous memoir, “Drinking: A Love Story,” suggests, with destructive habits. “Pack of Two” reflects, but does not fully illuminate, one such “intricate bond.”