For me, summertime reading selections require a lighter tone, readily likable characters, an easily followed plot and lots of emotional reward when everything turns out okay in the end. Nick Trout’s “The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs” fully satisfies these criteria. This story brings early smiles starting with the cover art, where an English bulldog, stuck in his doggy door, has a familiar look on his face of “How did I ever get this fat?”
Dr. Cyrus Mills, veterinary pathologist, returns home to a small Vermont town to settle the estate of his estranged father, planning to use the inheritance to straighten out his recent legal difficulties in Charleston, S.C. But in true “best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry” fashion, Mills can’t skip in and out of Eden Falls as quickly as desired.
His father, popular Dr. Bob Cobb, an old style, commonsensical, community vet, had little modern business acumen. He saved, rescued and placed abandoned animals, didn’t test and vaccinate for every little thing and was particularly lax about clients paying their bills.
The clinical list of tasks Mills had assumed he could tie up almost immediately, instead warp into a quirky, goofy roundabout way for transforming him into a James Herriot sort-generous, affable and much fonder of animals that he ever suspected. Also, surprise, surprise, he’s really likes their people as well.
First he rescues Freida Fuzzypaws, an old, fat golden retriever who has been secretly kicked out of her house by a child’s frustrated stepfather. The man, “Mr. Charcoal Suit,” told the child and her mother that the dog ran away but actually he abandons her at Mills’ clinic, knowing that the new vet, on his very first day, wouldn’t know the dog or the family.
Mills has never euthanized a creature before. As a pathologist his clients arrived already dead. He puzzles over why the angry man won’t provide enough information to justify euthanasia, won’t sign paperwork and won’t even pay full price.
After “Mr. Charcoal Suit” wordlessly turns his back on the touchy-feely, whirling goldie, Mills continues to obsess over the “why” to avoid committing the “what.” Instead, he hides Freida.
The rapidly moving storyline is structured by the six days the bank has given Mills to resolve his father’s debt quagmire. Each day brings scenarios similar to Freida’s dilemma, where rightful action demands that Mills examine the big picture, factoring in the emotional quotient of how and why people hold their animal companions so dear. His expertise with microscopes and reliance upon reasoned, logical thinking are nearly useless in this new role thrust upon him.
It becomes evident that while neither mean nor cold, Mills has yet to forgive his deceased father for answering late night and weekend calls about pets while never having enough time for his son. Mills thinks, “If fatherhood was a class, Cobb’s report card might say his attendance was spotty, always sat at the back, never disruptive but easily distracted.” Consequently, Mills identified with his mother, Ruth Mills, also a veterinary pathologist.
He recalls all the good things he shared with his mother. “Though it pains me to say it, pretty much all the good stuff growing up was our thing.”
When Ruth’s sister offered free tuition to Ruth and Bob for their teenage son at an esteemed private high school in South Carolina, Cobb made the decision to send Cyrus away for his own good. Ruth Mills died from cancer before Cyrus could graduate and he missed her funeral.
Out of anger he changed his surname to Mills and never returned to Eden Falls, also missing his father’s funeral. This solemn background information, revealed in stages, enhances the primary action of “The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs” - that of a stuck 40-year-old freeing up and embracing all the goodness instilled by both parents.
Once a stoic research-based investigator, Mills evolves into a devoted healer and the healing starts within. A host of interesting characters assist him. His father’s best friend, Dr. Fielding Lewis, 73, still works part time in the practice.
He functions as a wizened Yoda-like mentor, repeatedly instructing Mills to be more personable, trusting and intuitive. Honestly, Lewis might as well openly exhort, “Use the force, Mills, use the force!”
Also, Mills’ receptionist, with hair “tinted a yellow not found in nature,” a “still water runs deep” waitress, a desperate pregnant girl, a black Labrador with an underwear fetish, a wealthy cougar and many other endearing characters help Mills save himself and the Bedside Manor for Sick Animals.
This enthusiastic and delightfully warm reconciliation novel ends with the evil stepfather and the greedy banker being foiled. Overall, Trout’s narrative reflects skills gained writing New York Times bestseller non-fiction as well.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer residing in Manhattan.