Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family by Helen Brown

Title: Cleo: The Cat Who Mended A Family
Author: Helen Brown
ISBN: 978-0806533032
Pages: 272
Release Date: September 2010
Publisher: Citadel Press
Genre: Memoir; Non-fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary: “We’re just going to look.” Helen Brown had no intention of adopting a pet when she brought her sons, Sam and Rob, to visit a friend’s new kittens. But the runt of the litter was irresistible, with her over large ears and dainty chin. When Cleo was delivered three weeks later, Brown’s family had just been hit by a tragedy: the loss of her young son, Sam. Helen was sure she couldn’t keep Cleo at a time like this – until she saw something that she thought had vanished from the earth forever: her son Rob’s smile. The reckless, rambunctious kitten stayed.

My Thoughts: Cleo: The Cat Who Mended A Family is a smart, witty and poignant memoir about a family and the cat that taught them how to live again when all seemed lost. Helen Brown has written this book as a tribute to Cleo, the scraggily runt who came into her family's life at a very difficult time and helped them heal, simply by being herself. Cleo can be alternately heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny, but is always a wonderfully honest portrayal of a family, furry members included, who survived one of life's worst tragedies and learned how not just to cope, but celebrate life. Helen explains it so simply, "Love for a kitten was helping me embrace the world again."

Cleo, first and foremost, is very well written, combining wit (using a good deal of self-deprecating humor via anecdotes as well as other ways), intelligence, honesty and the brutal truth about the life of Helen Brown's family. Here are two good examples of the extremes and explicit honesty found here. First, Ms. Brown tells us about her fantasy where the woman responsible for her son, Sam's death, experiences punishment and pain. The second involves the time Cleo peed on the leg of Ms. Brown's first date after her divorce. Cleo's way of indicating her disapproval of the man!

There's quite a bit happening in this busy family, all told in a relatable, clear manner pulling the reader in from page one. Cleo, the kitten, is very small when she arrives at Ms. Brown's home and in need of TLC but already full of spunk and personality! Before reading several chapters about, among other things, Cleo ransacking her new home and then curling up to sleep on Helen, purring loudly, you will have fallen in love with Helen, her family and, of course, Cleo. If you love animals like I do, and maybe even if you think you don't (the author admits she herself was not a cat person) Cleo will charm and amuse you. You might just be in awe of Cleo's ability to respond This includes the time Cleo found Helen in the bathroom, crying, "She didn't seem to mind being a handkerchief. Purring, she nuzzled my neck and gazed at me with such affection I was taken aback."

Cleo quickly ingratiates herself in the family and becomes more than a full fledged member. She becomes the family center. Her playfulness and vivacity not only gets Helen's surviving son, Rob to finally smile but helps him find the courage to make friends. Cleo enhances the family's lives in a myriad of ways, showing them by her example how to embrace life and face it head on. The family grows closer and, although many days were still a struggle, things improve and life becomes more meaningful. As Helen writes, "The more we let ourselves love our young cat, the more readily we seemed able to open our hearts and forgive the unfamiliar people we'd become since the loss of Sam."

One reason this book succeeds and excels is because Ms. Brown avoids the trap of crossing over into sentimentality or cutesy-kitsch. As much as Helen loves Cleo, the kitten often drives her crazy with her wild, rambunctious behavior, so much so that Helen has to leave the house and get away for a bit. When she grows up to resemble her beautiful Abyssinian mother but with black fur, Cleo enjoys lying in front of the fire or in the sun unless she's greeting someone at the door, entertaining guests or hunting! Ms. Brown realistically portrays life with Cleo, much of which other pet owners, particularly those with cats, will recognize and find relatable. I should know - I see so much of myself and my fellow pet-owners in these pages.

There are at least two more aspects of the book that make it unique. First, every chapter is a reference to Cleo, like "Trust" and comes with a subheading, such as "A Cat is Always in the Right Place at Exactly the Right Time", lending to the book's humor, informing us about cat's and emphasizing the love the family feels for Cleo. The second is that the author includes interesting historical tidbits about cats throughout, illustrating the importance of cats in our society. I learned, for instance, the significance of cats in ancient Egypt and the power of a cat's purr.

Cleo is a handful as a kitten and grows up, living a very long and happy life, to have a very unique personality (even for a cat!) which I think all animal lovers will enjoy. Cleo not only touches the family but many other people who have the privilege to know her. The author's ability to convey this in a captivating narrative is no mean feat. Her career as a magazine writer and journalist comes across in her ability to tell the story in streamlined chapters, keeping the book well-paced, interesting and relatable.

There's only one small criticism, but I think it's worth mentioning. There aren't enough photos. In fact, there's only one, and that's on the cover. I thought pictures would go a long way to filling in some details and removing so much reliance on having to use mental imagery. That tiny oversight aside, if you're looking for a book to reinforce your belief in people, in the power of love, not just between people, but the unconditional love you can only get from an animal and the ability of an animal to help us heal, pick this book up.

Everyone believes their pet is the cutest, the most interesting, etc, but Ms. Brown is able to back up these claims with clear, concise, funny, touching and often times remarkable anecdotes. By telling the simple, sometimes difficult, truth, it's clear from the beginning of this book that Cleo was a very special cat. Not just because she was beautiful and adorable with a unique and captivating personality but because of her healing impact on the family just when they needed a miracle like Cleo the most.

If you think something might be missing from you or your family's life or you are going through a very difficult time, look to Cleo. You may find answers there. If you never "got" all the fuss about cats, look to Cleo. And, of course, if you ever have or currently are experiencing the wonderfully unique world of caring for a one-kitten wrecking crew, then you too can look to Cleo for someone to commiserate with!

One of my favorite passages in the book has to do with Cleo's "voice".

"But much as I loved the office the best part of the day was when I slid the key in the front door of the old cottage to see Cleo prancing down the hall to greet me with a welcome meow.
I'd started to notice Cleo was developing her language skills. Apart from the charming hello meow she gave whenever any of us arrived home, and the polite mew when someone picked her up, there was the assertive let me come in you heartless moron! wail when she was shut out. She had better manners than the four of us put together. Whenever anyone opened a door to let her in she always responded with a clipped and demure thank you as she sailed past.
Mealtimes, especially if they were delayed, reduced her to a stream of alley cat language. Standing in front of the fridge, she'd yowl, If you don't feed me right now I'm going to jump on your head and tattoo your eyeballs

I received a copy of Cleo: The Cat Who Mended A Family from Helen Brown (website and blog) and Citadel Press.


  1. As a cat lover, this sounds like a great book-our love of cats-we have three-helps create unity in my family

  2. Thanks for this review. I have been wanting to find the perfect 'cat' book, and a memoir is even a better choice. I didn't think I was a cat lover until my daughter acquired one as a gift 11 years ago, and as you can predict, she's off to college, and who do you think is taking care and cherishing this cat (Jimmy) most of all? They are such lovable intelligent creatures!!

  3. Amy, this sounds like such a touching book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Have a great Sunday.

  4. MEL U: It's always nice to meet another cat lover! Cleo is a fantastic book and Helen Brown does a wonderful job of showing how much Cleo was a part of their family and had a great impact on all of the family in so many ways.

    BOOK QUOTER: I think you'll LOVE this book! Helen Brown's style is wonderful and her anecdotes are really quite funny and sometimes very sad. I am sure you will be able to relate to much of her experience with Cleo!

    DIANE: Thank you, I hope you are enjoying a snow-less Sunday! This is a very poignant and witty book about a family's experience with the wonderful, unique Cleo.

  5. I'm glad the author did not fall into the cutesy trap with this one. I love a good cat story but I find that so many of them are overly sappy and cute.

    I don't know about you but all of my cats were sort of sassy so cute doesn't work for me.

  6. Cats can be great healers and I loved that angle of the story. Their purr soothes and they are always warm - which helps to warm your heart too. I enjoyed finding parallels to the kittens from my life in this book too. I would have liked a photo of Cleo - I don't believe the cover was of her.