From the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction comes a tender and funny debut novel, set over one emotionally charged weekend at an animal sanctuary in western Kansas, where maternal, romantic, and community bonds are tested in the wake of an estranged daughter’s homecoming.
The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble.
It’s late 2016 when Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary in Western Kansas has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes—but that it’s also for sale, due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence, and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she has to return to her childhood home—especially since her own past may have played a role in the attack on the sanctuary. Ariel expects tension, maybe even fury, but she doesn’t anticipate that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, will still be working at the Bright Side.
Back in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her sudden departure. After uncovering Mona’s address, he sets out to confront Ariel, but instead finds her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. Amid the reparations with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence, and whether she belongs with Dex or with someone else, somewhere else.
Acclaimed writer Pam Houston says that “Mandelbaum is wise beyond her years and twice as talented,” and The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals poignantly explores the unique love and tension between mothers and daughters, and humans and animals alike. Perceptive and funny, moving and eloquent, and ultimately buoyant, Mandelbaum offers a panoramic view of family and forgiveness, and of the meaning of home. Her debut reminds us that love provides refuge, and underscores our similarities as human beings, no matter how alone or far apart we may feel.
Mandelbaum's heartwarming and sharp-witted debut novel (after the collection Bad Kansas) features an estranged mother and daughter better at connecting with injured and abandoned animals than with each other. Mona Siskin, owner of the Bright Side Animal Sanctuary in St. Clare, Kans., steals a "Make America Great Again" sign from the neighboring Fuller brothers' lawn, the sign's letters "stamped with all the careless glory of a lower-back tattoo." When Big John Fuller approaches Mona the next morning, she assumes he's there to confront her about the sign. Instead, he offers to purchase her property. Bankrupt and overextended, Mona had reluctantly put the land on the market a week before, but she doesn't want to sell to Big John, who once reported one of her workers to ICE. In Lawrence, Kans., Mona's 24-year-old daughter, Ariel, who ran away six years earlier after betraying her mother and her first love, is surprised to learn of Mona's plans to sell, and enraged by reports of arson at the sanctuary, along with anti-Semitic graffiti targeting her mother. She returns, hoping to help save Bright Side, and things get off to a rough start as she reckons with the past. Ariel accidentally lets five dogs escape, prompting Mona to ask if Ariel returned just to give her a heart attack. A more promising sign comes when Big John bonds with one of the runaway dogs, among many surprises in this nuanced look at political divisions and a mother and daughter's difficult relationship. In Mandelbaum's bighearted, emotionally intelligent tale, the love for animals proves irresistible. Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated this was the author's first book.