Animal Husbandry

Sally Eckhoff reviews 'Animal Husbandry' by Laura Zigman

Published January 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When people say that love makes all things new again, they never talk about peeling. Peeling is that inexorable process that starts when all your romantic engines are humming, all signs are pointing straight ahead. That's when he -- it's always a he -- starts to unstick himself. Before you know it, he's peeling himself away from you as if he were a Random Acts of Kindness bumper sticker and you were some mobster's Lincoln. Your skin has a raw patch from where he used to be. He'll never tell you why.

That's what happens to Jane Goodall in Laura Zigman's first novel, "Animal Husbandry," and Jane actually does something about it. She is not the famous Jane Goodall of primatology, but a TV producer whose passionate boyfriend proclaims every kind of believable love for her only to wake up one morning looking at her as if she were some kind of wart. After caving in to the common temptation to cry a lot and guzzle Jack Daniel's from the bottle, Jane hits the library to discover the cause of male amatory weirdness. Newly armed with such works as Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene," she retires to her cramped bedroom, now dubbed the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Male Behavior, and proceeds to ferret out why bulls need variety and what the desire to replicate one's DNA has to do with her empty apartment and her broken heart.

First she must digest Old Cow/New Cow Theory and accept that however much her guy may have wanted her before, all men really want is a New Cow. Then, with more research, she has to deal with more troubling information: the least common denominators of human behavior (Darwin), the power of self-deception (Nietzsche) and the self-evidently sloppy evolution of desire. Hot on the trail of discovery, our heroine is as keen as an Eagle Scout, as she was the day she discovered the humiliating Coolidge Effect, which explains the male's need for variety. "I stared at the article," she reports. "My heart pounded. My breath became shallow. I started to sweat." Three percent of mammals pair-bond, she discovers. How can we go on?

Jane finds out something she never bargained for, which is that she has to dig impossibly deep, deeper than the biological origins of attraction, to find the roots of her own determination, and of that teasing human predisposition to not just love but to be known. This lighthearted treatment of her journey leaves you with a vague feeling of sadness -- the aftermath of the truest kind of comedy known to man and beast.

By Sally Eckhoff

Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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