Book Review: Other People’s Pets

Review By: 
Helene Cohen Bludman

La La Fine quits veterinary school to rob houses, but it’s for a good reason: to keep her father Zev from going to jail.

Not exactly a typical scenario, but in R. L. Maizes’ debut novel, Other People’s Pets (Celadon Books, 2020), there is a family tradition of burglary, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Zev Fine is a locksmith by trade, but when business is slow, he supplements his income by stealing valuables from upscale homes in the Denver suburbs. His wife Elissa, conflicted about her role as a mother and distressed to be the wife of a criminal, abandons the family when La La is 8 years old.

Her disappearance is traumatic to La La, but Zev is too angry to console her. Left to manage as a single parent, he pulls La La out of school, homeschools her in his limited way, and attempts to give her a Jewish education, as well.

Though he isn’t religious, Zev teaches La La passages from the Old Testament for the bat mitzvah they celebrated when she is 12, just the two of them in the kitchen, drinking Manischewitz from tumblers and eating sponge cake. He recites a few of the Ten Commandments: “Honor they father” (Zev’s version), “Thou shall not murder,” and “Thou shall not take God’s name in vain” – conveniently skipping “Thou shall not steal.”

Burglary is something Zev knows how to teach, and breaking into houses becomes a regular father-daughter outing. 

Having La La along proves advantageous: Her exceptional empathy for animals helps her to calm distressed pets, and it is much easier for Zev to be an efficient burglar without the complication of a barking dog.

La La grows up and starts veterinary school, falls in love, and has two dogs of her own. Zev, seeking money to pay for her education, continues his break-ins, but his luck finally runs out, and he is caught. Without the money to pay for his defense, though, he faces a long prison sentence. 

He looks toward the ceiling, saying, “Help me out here. I’m one of your chosen people. We can’t all be heart surgeons, you know.”

Desperate to help her father, La La drops out of school to make money the only way she knows how. With just a twinge of remorse, she rationalizes her misdeeds by selecting homes where she can be of service to pets in exchange for the family jewels: If the parakeet’s water supply is low, she refills its bottle and raises the temperature in the house to make the environment more comfortable; in a home where she finds a Great Dane with a limp, she leaves a note for the owner saying, “Riley has a lump on his right front leg. Get him to a vet right away.”

In the end, Zev and La La separately set out on a search for Elissa. Each of them has carried the weight of her abandonment through the years and needs closure – and what they find sets the stage for a poignant conclusion.

I enjoyed Other People’s Pets just as much as I did Maizes’ widely praised short story collection, We Love Anderson Cooper. Raised as an Orthodox Jew and now self- described as an agnostic and culturally Jewish, Maizes shines in the eponymous first story about the boy who plans to come out at his bar mitzvah because he is offended by his Torah portion, Leviticus, Chapter 20, Verse 13. With his stunned parents watching from the front row, he announces, “I’m not an abomination.” Later, his mother attempts a conversation, telling him, “Why didn’t you talk to us first? We would have understood. We love Anderson Cooper.”

Maizes has a gift for drawing troubled but endearing characters, misfits with spunk, in search of something missing in their lives. Other People’s Pets is laced with humanity and humor, and characters you care about – felons included.

Helene Cohen Bludman is a freelance writer and longtime member of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA.