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Longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize

Kept Animals is a darkly beautiful book, tender yet powerful, an exquisite exploration of hurt and desire, the why of wanting, taking, and giving. And Kate Milliken knows her stuff when it comes to horses.” —Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses

“In this rugged and ravishing debut, a tragic car accident upends the lives of multiple Southern California families—particularly three teenage girls, whose lives and desires intersect in ways none of them could have imagined.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

A bold, riveting debut novel of desire, betrayal, and loss, centering on three teenage girls, a horse ranch, and the accident that changes everything.

It’s 1993, and Rory Ramos works as a ranch hand at the stable her stepfather manages in Topanga Canyon, California, a dry, dusty place reliant on horses and hierarchies. There she rides for the rich clientele, including twins June and Wade Fisk. While Rory draws the interest of out-and-proud June, she’s more intrigued by Vivian Price, the beautiful girl with the movie-star father who lives down the hill. Rory keeps largely separate from the likes of the Prices—but, perched on her bedroom windowsill, Rory steals glimpses of Vivian swimming in her pool nearly every night.

After Rory’s stepfather is involved in a tragic car accident, the lives of Rory, June, and Vivian become inextricably bound together. Rory discovers photography, begins riding more competitively, and grows closer to gorgeous, mercurial Vivian, but despite her newfound sense of self, disaster lurks all around her: in the parched landscape, in her unruly desires, in her stepfather’s wrecked body and guilty conscience.One night, as the relationships among these teenagers come to a head, a forest fire tears through the canyon, and Rory’s life is changed forever.

Kept Animals is narrated by Rory’s daughter, Charlie, in 2015, more than twenty years after that fateful fire. Realizing that the key to her own existence lies in the secret of what really happened that unseasonably warm fall, Charlie is finally ready to ask questions about her mother’s past. But with Rory away on assignment, Charlie knows she must unravel the truth for herself.

This reading group guide for Kept Animals includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

It’s 1993, and Rory Ramos works as a ranch hand at the stable her stepfather manages in Topanga Canyon, California, a dry, dusty place reliant on horses and hierarchies. There she rides for the rich clientele, including twins June and Wade Fisk. While Rory draws the interest of out-and-proud June, she’s more intrigued by Vivian Price, the beautiful girl with the movie-star father who lives down the hill. Rory keeps largely separate from the likes of the Prices—but, perched on her bedroom windowsill, Rory steals glimpses of Vivian swimming in her pool nearly every night.

After Rory’s stepfather is involved in a tragic car accident, the lives of Rory, June, and Vivian become inextricably bound together. Rory discovers photography, begins riding more competitively, and grows closer to gorgeous, mercurial Vivian, but despite her newfound sense of self, disaster lurks all around her: in the parched landscape, in her unruly desires, in her stepfather’s wrecked body and guilty conscience. One night, as the relationships among these teenagers come to a head, a forest fire tears through the canyon, and Rory’s life is changed forever.

Kept Animals is narrated by Rory’s daughter, Charlie, in 2015, more than twenty years after that fateful fire. Realizing that the key to her own existence lies in the secret of what really happened that unseasonably warm fall, Charlie is finally ready to ask questions about her mother’s past. But with Rory away on assignment, Charlie knows she must unravel the truth for herself.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. What’s the symbolism behind the fox Rory and Gus find in the road? What does the fox come to represent? Why do you think Gus stops to pick it up? How does the fox signal the beginning of a change in Rory and Gus’s relationship?

2. When Gus arrives at Sonja and Jorge’s house, why is Sonja upset? Do you think this is a familiar scene for her?

3. Sarah struggles with parenting a small child, even as she loves him deeply. Describe Sarah’s feelings about Charlie, before and after the accident. Who does she blame, initially? Who does she blame at the end?

4. June and Rory are from very different families and class backgrounds, which is evident in their experiences at the stables and at home. What do you think draws them together? How does June feel about Rory?

5. Left to her own devices, Vivian begins to reflect on her childhood, before her father’s fame. What was it like? How does it compare to her adolescence, in terms of money, comfort, success, and intimacy?

6. Why is Rory drawn to the view outside her bedroom window? Why does she tell June about it?

7. What happens to Journey in Fresno? Who do you believe is responsible, and what are the consequences?

8. Vivian has a confusing and inappropriate relationship with her former high school teacher. Why does Vivian call McLeod? Why does he answer?

9. What causes the shift in Rory’s relationship with June and Wade? Do they respect her, resent her, or something else entirely? How do differences in class and race come to play in these relationships?

10. Why is Rory drawn to photography? Why does she choose to photograph Vivian?

11. Describe the relationships between animals and humans in this novel: Rory and Chap, June and Wade and their horses, Gus and the animals on which he practices taxidermy, Charlie and the foals she weans.

12. To whom does Sarah send her letters, and why? How would you describe the tone of these letters?

13. What do you think of Mona, as a wife, mother, and individual? What are her motivations?

14. Describe the dream Rory has about Mona. What do you think it means?

15. Why does Rory agree to breeding Chaparral? What are the consequences, practical, emotional, and symbolic, of the interaction between the two horses?

16. Why does Sonja tell Rory about Tomás’s father? What does that story mean to Rory, then and later?

17. What happens the night of the fire? Do you know what caused it? Who shares the responsibility?

18. At the end of the novel, Charlie makes a decision. Do you understand what she’s looking for, and why? Do you think she’ll find it?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read Kate Milliken’s book of short stories, If I’d Known You Were Coming.

2. Read other novels of California, like Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, Emma Cline’s The Girls, Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, Claire Vaye Watkins's Gold Fame Citrus, Tommy Orange’s There There, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays.

3. For more information about Kate Milliken, visit https://www.katemilliken.com/.
Photograph by Adam Karsten

Kate Milliken is the author of the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award–winning collection of stories, If I’d Known You Were Coming. A graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, she has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Northern California with her family. Kept Animals is her first novel.

"Narrator Rebecca Lowman ably depicts the volatile emotions engulfing three California families in the aftermath of a toddler's tragic death. This visceral coming-of-age story is enhanced by Lowman's keen characterizations and emotional acuity. The narrative alternates between 1993 and 2015, transporting listeners between Rory's seminal year on a horse ranch in California and her daughter Charlie's later probing into her mother's obscured past. Lowman's vocal range shifts easily between teenaged Rory and her stepfather, Gus, as they grapple with sexuality and alcoholism, respectively. Next-door neighbor Vivian, the daughter of largely absent parents, self-medicates after losing her brother. Racism and class differences also feature strongly as events develop. The story of the characters' increasingly interconnected lives culminates in a challenging conclusion."

– AudioFile Magazine

More books from this reader: Rebecca Lowman