In Feed My Dear Dogs, Emma Richler returns to the life of the Weiss family, first introduced to readers in her debut–and much-celebrated–book, Sister Crazy, through a series of interconnected stories narrated by Jemima (Jem) Weiss.
The Weisses are a tight unit of seven: father Yaakov, a gruff sportswriter whose love for his children is manifest in his stern instructions and impromptu boxing lessons; mother Frances, a wise and gentle beauty adored by her family, almost to the point of obsession by her husband; Ben, the most heroic of the siblings, by virtue of birth-order and also for knowing the answer to all questions; Jude, Jem’s almost-twin, who is only fifteen months older than she and the most serious of the children, careful to point out the anti-Semitic leanings of Jem’s literary heroes; Jem, the narrator, who would prefer to never leave the comforting confines of her family; delicate yet hilarious Harriet, Jem’s only sister, who can sound like a little old lady or a sultry vixen, depending on what movie she’s quoting; and Gus, the frail little boy who completes the circle at the beginning of the book with his birth and arrival home from the hospital.
Feed My Dear Dogs beings with the family in London, where eight-year-old Jem and her sister attend a convent school to the consternation of most of the nuns, since not only are the Weiss children not Catholic, but, most perplexingly, they are half-Jewish. Not surprisingly, Jem prefers home to school. At home she is surrounded by the books she loves, (particularly Tintin and Le Morte d’Arthur) and the comforts only a big, happy family can provide.
Soon, however, the family departs for Canada –“Dad’s country,” as the children see it–where together they begin a new life, shuttling between a Montreal townhouse and a country home, and adapting to their new land –even creating the “Weiss on Ice” hockey team. No matter where the family is, each member is fiercely loyal to home. From the use of short notes: “Out. Back soon. – Jude” to a simple “I’ll be up in my room!” yelled down the stairs, to Yaakov’s frantic bellowing of “Frances!” through the house, the family keeps close tabs on its members, which also allows Jem to subconsciously control it: “. . . my universe still the Universe, a place I wander with a slight swagger.”
But the comfort and security of family can’t last forever, Jem learns in high school, as Jude plans an extensive travel itinerary for himself and Ben contemplates moving out on his own. Meanwhile, Jem’s burgeoning feminism pits her against her father and brothers while she battles with a burden of guilt over the near-drowning death of her youngest brother. Spiraling into a breakdown by the story’s tragically beautiful end, Jem discovers that families simply can not remain fixed, like the stars in the galaxies, unchanged forever.
Intermingled through the story of the Weiss family are Jem’s (and her siblings’) encyclopedic knowledge of history, literature, film, religion and language. Richler also interweaves the almost mythic life story of Frances, the family’s matriarch, into the book, and provides glimpses into Jem’s troubled mind through a series of present-day conversations with her therapist, all of which serve to create a fully drawn portrait of Jem, her mother and the bond between them and the family as a whole.
From the Hardcover edition.