Diana Wagman has shown a soft spot for both the offbeat and the obsessive in her novels Bump, Spontaneous and Skin Deep. Her latest, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, shouldn’t disappoint fans: It features a deranged kidnapper whose best friend is a seven-foot-long, 165-pound iguana named Cookie.
Cookie needs a mate. His owner, Oren Baines, wants one, too. But that’s not exactly why Oren abducts depressed divorcee Winnie Parker, ex-wife of rich, famous game-show host Jonathan Parker and daughter of Oscar-winner Daisy Juniper. Thrust into his sweltering house—kept jungle hot for Cookie’s sake—Winnie must unravel the mystery of why she’s there in order to survive. Determined to get home to her teenage daughter, Lacy, Winnie tries to escape and Oren turns violent. But she comes to see that this hostile, redheaded young man is vulnerable, fumbling. His mysterious plan seems to be falling apart. Can she use that to her advantage? What is it that he wants? Not a ransom, not rape, not murder. Whatever it is, it seems that what he needs is a mother.
Wagman builds a fascinating dynamic from this setup: As Winnie and Oren’s intimacy grows, their roles seem to quiver all over the place. They are captor/captive, son/mother; at oddly potent moments, even potential lovers. Awkward Oren shifts seamlessly, compellingly, from tormentor to savior to child. As he stumbles toward his mysterious goal with Winnie in tow, he describes his troubled childhood as a carny and grows more vulnerable and violent. Meanwhile, Winnie thinks about her divorce and the fact that she’s still numb, five years on. She grows desperate to see her daughter and must get away from Oren if it kills her. The tension between these two is thick and complex; their hours together are a deftly choreographed series of jumps, flinches and moments of deceptive calm. It keeps the pages flying, although the pace is occasionally broken by comparatively dull chapters from Jonathan’s and Lacy’s points of view.
But that’s minor. Events build to a fever pitch in Oren’s too-hot house, spinning out of control, and the climax is a wrenching, satisfying, awful surprise. Wagman has crafted a dark, funny and sensitive thriller that might be the first of its kind: the Oedipal abduction tale.