Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

First published as an essay in Granta’s Summer 2009 issue, Lost Cat is a thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. Mary Gaitskill – an American writer whose work has recently been experiencing something of a revival – is perhaps best known for her short stories; but this slim memoir is wonderfully affecting. (Spoiler alert: I really adored it.)

While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten whom she names Gattino. The kitten is the runt of the litter – thin, one-eyed and desperately in need of attention. Nevertheless, under Mary’s supervision, Gattino grows stronger and more affectionate, seemingly returning his carer’s love and nurturing gestures.

In time, Mary and her husband, Peter, return to their home in New York, with Gattino in tow. At first, Gattino seems settled, continuing the progress that was made back in Italy. However, not long after Mary and Peter move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, prompting a tireless search for the cat in the immediate area. Over the next several months, Mary puts out food, lays traps, distributes flyers and stakes out car parks, all in an effort to find the elusive Gattino. Various potential sightings are reported, but none of these instances turn out to be genuine.

In her desperation to find the lost cat, Mary consults psychics and mystics, while continuing to worry away at various omens and superstitions – anything that might have some significance to Gattino’s whereabouts and situation.

Running through this profoundly moving memoir are various other strands that cut deep into Mary’s life. The loss of Gattino reawakens various emotions within Mary, releasing previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of her father. What emerges is a picture of Mary’s father, a ‘difficult’, truculent man who had suffered great pain from an early age, his own father and mother having died when he was a young boy. Moreover, Mary’s father endured a slow and painful death, a function of his terminal cancer and refusal to accept treatment. While Mary and her father were not particularly close, she and her sisters tended to him in his final months – albeit too late and somewhat inadequately.

Consequently, there is a sense that the loss of Gattino allows Mary to experience (and ultimately, to come to terms with) the pain of losing her own father. Not only the physical loss of a parent but a yearning for the life they might have had together too. In effect, Mary’s concern that she has failed to ‘protect’ Gattino opens the gateway of emotions related to other, potentially more painful regrets.

Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain, because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain. An animal will never choose pain; an animal can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it should be possible to shelter a kitten with love. (p. 15)

Also of significance here are Mary’s feelings for two disadvantaged children, Caesar and Natalia, whom she and Peter met through a kind of fostering programme several years earlier. The children’s home life in the city is tough, with a mother who beats and belittles them routinely and no sign of a father on the scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this background, the siblings prove somewhat challenging to reach; nevertheless, Mary perseveres, recognising Caesar’s neediness and aggression to be a function of his situation.

I took Caesar’s aggression seriously – but for a long time I forgave it. I forgave because for me the aggression and need translated almost on contact as longing for the pure affection he had been denied by circumstance, and outrage at the denial. (pp. 40–41)

Holidays with Mary and her husband prove to be a release for the children, initially at least. Mary spends considerable time and energy supporting the pair, giving them pleasurable experiences to remember, helping Natalia with her homework, and paying for both children to attend a good school. Nevertheless, as the siblings grow older, disaffection sets in, and Mary’s efforts to nurture Natalia’s abilities fail to have the desired impact.

In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. Through her reflections on these issues, Gaitskill comes across as a very open person, someone with a desire to analyse and reflect on her experiences, laying bare her various anxieties along the way.

I can’t say offhand how many times, during the decades before I got married, I asked for or demanded some sort of relationship with someone who shut the door in my face, then opened it again and peeked out. I would – metaphorically – pound on the door and follow the person through endless rooms. Sometimes the door opened and I fell in love – before losing interest completely. I thought then that my feelings were false and had been all along, but the pain that came from rejecting someone or being rejected was real and deep. (p. 82)

There are points where Mary doubts or examines her reasons for intervening in these situations, particularly as far as Caesar and Natalia are concerned. Nevertheless, there is a sense that she was right to offer her love to Gattino – perhaps accompanied by the hope that one day he might return…

Lost Cat is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

49 thoughts on “Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

  1. Caroline

    I don’t know how well I would handle reading this. On one hand I’m tempted to rush and get it but it could trigger me big time. Maybe you’re aware but I’m very active on Twitter, trying to help people find their lost cats. Especially the cat of a friend. So much heartbreak not knowing what happened.
    It sounds excellent though. Maybe, when I feel braver, I’ll read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I get it, I really do. Given the degree of your personal investment in lost cats, I would hesitate to recommend this to you in the middle of a pandemic. As you say, maybe for a time when you’re feeling quite robust…

      There’s an element of this book that chimes with me on a personal level – more specifically, Gaitskill’s father’s experiences as a young boy. He lost both of his parents within a year of one another, fairly closely followed by the death of his dog – and it was this last development, the passing of the dog, that triggered his tears. I was a little older than this boy when my own father died, and in my mid twenties when my mother passed away, but I recall the floodgates of emotion opening after the death of my mum’s cat. It was a catalyst for the release of all those pent-up feelings of loss and grief, so there’s quite a lot that resonates here.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I went through similar things, not as young as you though but younger than most. I’m very sorry to had to go through such loss so young. When Max almost died in 2016 – it triggered all that grief. But, of course, I was also sad because if him. It will be one if the hardest losses and, unlike other loss, I know it will come.
        I ordered it anyway because, it could be cathartic to read it but might still wait a bit.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks, Caroline. It was a long time ago, so it’s all in the past now…

          It didn’t realise that about Max. How awful that must have been for you – and, as you say, the knowledge that it is bound to happen at some point must be very hard to bear. We pour so much love into these pets and they become such pivotal members of our families – it makes it incredibly hard for us to recover from the loss once they’ve gone…

          Reply
          1. Caroline

            It was terrible. The vet didn’t even notice how bad he was but I felt it. And then, in the end another vet said she didn’t think he’d make it but he pulled through. He had severe bacterial and viral pneumonia. It will be terrible. They are family members.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              That’s dreadful. It must have been so worrying for you at the time, especially as you could tell that something was desperately wrong. I hope he’s doing okay at the moment…

              Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    I didn’t finish a book of her short stories recently – Bad Behaviour) – but I listened to her interviewed about this essay on the podcast Literary Friction (date in November) and found it more interesting- but still rather bleak. She seems drawn to pain and cruelty.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, interesting. I was wondering about Bad Behaviour as a possible future read. She does seem interested in some of the darker aspects of our experiences, but there a frankness to Lost Cat that I found very involving…

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui, and it does sound like there’s a lot more to this book than just a lost cat (though a mislaid animal is traumatic enough for their human). It’s often a smaller thing which can trigger a bigger reaction in us – that straw that breaks the camel’s back – and it’s intriguing how Gaitskill uses the loss of the cat to explore her wider feelings.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s it exactly. The seemingly less significant loss that triggers other, more deeply felt emotions to rise to the surface. As I was saying to Caroline earlier, there are certain things here that I can relate to on a personal level, which makes it quite an involving read from this perspective.

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    It’s been interesting to watch enthusiasm for Gaitskill’s work take an upward turn recently. Though familiar with the short stories, I’ve not read anything else by her. Her perception and honesty in this book sound very appealing. She does have a clear-eyed view of human behavior.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I didn’t realise, until fairly recently, that her first book had been published back in the late ’80s. Something that had passed me by at the time. A clear-eyed view of human nature sounds spot on. She’s an insightful writer, unafraid to probe deeply into human emotions.

      Reply
  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Mary Gaitskill; your review reminded me of just how talented she is as a writer. In the past I’ve read a few stories and a couple of her novels,
    Veronica and Two Girls, Fat and Thin (I remember this one better than Veronica). Both were great but very dark. Gaitskill has this uncanny ability to see some very disturbing and uncomfortable things about human nature but also, at least in the things I’ve read, understands the conditions that created the darkness. And — she combines it with this very funny, very dark humor.
    I almost talked myself into reading The Mare, which had great reviews, but was a little too worried about the animal cruelty issues to try it (I’m a total coward about this stuff). It’s interesting that part of the plot turned on the relationship between a white privileged couple and a “fresh air” kid, a Dominican girl from the inner city whom they sponsored on weekends and summers. Your review of Gaitskill’s essay makes me wonder whether the novel may reflect her own experiences . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you mentioned the cruelty to animals in The Mare as I don’t think I could deal with that, especially right now! The others sound very much in line with the points other commenters have made about her fiction – the willingness to explore uncomfortable issues, and, as you say, the insight into some of the underlying factors or motivations. She’s definitely a writer I would be open to reading again in the future, especially if there are some connections between her fiction and this essay.

      Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        I don’t want to put you off reading The Mare, which I understand from reviews is one of Gaitskill’s best. I’m not sure about the cruelty issue, I was just worried about it (I think one of your other commentors has actually read this novel and could speak better to the cruelty aspect). I actually found certain areas of Two Girls (both “girls” were survivors of childhood sexual trauma) pretty disturbing but — Gaitskill is so worth reading. I actually think I’m going to check out some of her story collections this week!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks for adding those thoughts. They’re both very sensitive subjects, so it’s useful to have some context. Her short stories sound really interesting – albeit rather bleak. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on…

          Reply
          1. buriedinprint

            FWIW, something I learned about a couple of years ago is how well it works to look up “What happens to the [name animal] in [name book]” in a search engine. It’s amazing how many readers out there share our sentiments on this matter and have already answered this exact question, even with new and indie press books. Even though I am spoilerphobic in every other instance, this discovery has led me to ask this question on many occasions (when I can’t outright ask someone who’s already read it) and has been very helpful in determining my readiness to pursue a rec like this.

            Reply
  6. heavenali

    This sounds like such a poignant memoir. I have heard of Gaitskill but know nothing about her or her work. It sounds like she has approached this work with great honesty. Lovely review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I’ve only really ‘discovered’ her fairly recently myself. The style is really well-judged – open and reflective which seems appropriate given the subject matter at hand.

      Reply
  7. MarinaSofia

    Tempted to rush out and get this, like Caroline, but it also sounds a bit too close to certain things now and feel it might trigger some tears… maybe I’ll wait a bit before attempting it.

    Reply
  8. Jane

    I haven’t come across Gaitskill before but understand from personal experience the loss of a family pet just after a parent. In my case I replaced the pet immediately. This sounds a cathartic read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve experienced this too. It’s a hard thing to come to terms with, the loss of a pet not long after the death of a close family member… And you’re right with that description. Cathartic is a good way of thinking of it, particularly given the resonances.

      Reply
  9. lauratfrey

    That’s so funny, I just finished listening to a podcast about this. Mary Gaitskill was a guest on Literary Friction last year (I’m very behind on podcasts!). She did a reading from the essay, and they talked about “complicated love”. It sounds great, and it’s actually available online at Granta. I bookmarked it to read later.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! And thanks for mentioning the podcast. I often listen to them while walking around the local common, so I’ll try to track it down. It’s always interesting to listen to an author discussing their work when it’s something you’ve read and connected with. I hope you enjoy the essay!

      Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    I’ve read Two Girls and I remember feeling that, despite my initial interest in her writing, just reading the blurb I was no longer sure that I wanted to read the book, and the first couple of pages made me even less sure, and then I read it pretty much non-stop until I was done. She captures and illuminates vulnerability really well, and I can see where that might come into play with this short piece too. What inspired you to reach for a 2009 issue of Granta? Are you that behind on your mag’s? (Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. LOL)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right – there’s a vulnerability that comes to the surface here. It’s actually just been published as a book by the publishing arm of Daunt Books, so I read it in that format (as opposed to the Granta journal).

      Reply
  11. gertloveday

    Mary Gaitskill certainly deals with challenging subjects. I have read Two Girls her book from the early ‘90 s. Funny but very dark. I’d have to check the ‘what happens to the animal site’ before I read any of her other books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s certainly the impression I’m getting, particularly from those readers familiar with her fiction. Just to reassure you about this one…even though Gattino was effectively a rescue cat, Gaitskill doesn’t portray any instances of animal cruelty in this essay, so you can rest easy on that front…

      Reply
  12. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Not an author I’ve read but her insights into the human condition and the behaviour of cats dies sound intriguing and thought provoking. It reminds me of a memoir I read a few years ago also called Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and the lengths she goes to to find him and the subsequent reflection and learning/lessons on why this cat left. It was both humorous and poignant, though perhaps lighter than Mary Gaitskill’s treatment. Personally, I find the observation of cat’s different behaviours around household members interesting, they’re critical perceptive members of the family.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I wasn’t aware of Caroline Paul’s memoir, so thank you for mentioning it. I’ll take a look. It does seem to be a situation that prompts personal reflection, the sudden disappearance of cat in this way, so I can see how it would lead to this kind of examination. And that’s a great comment about the perceptiveness of acts and their behaviour towards different members of the family. It’s something I’ve seen at my goddaughter’s house where there are two cats, three teenage children and two adults. The various dynamics are fascinating!

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        I could write a post on that, but I won’t, not just my household, but the community within my apartment, whose stories were recently shared, as they’ve become acquainted with one of our cats, and often regale me with her mischiefs. :) Caroline Paul’s book is bittersweet and even better her partner is an illustrator so there are some priceless drawings that go with it.

        Reply
  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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