Still Life with Elephant: A Novel, by Judy Reene Singer
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Broadway (July 10, 2007)
Rating (scale of one to five stars): *****
Still Life with Elephant is Judy Reene Singer’s second book, and after reading Horseplay, I had to run out and buy it as soon as it came out. Ms. Singer has a witty and lively writing style that makes me want to read everything she writes—I’d settle for shopping lists at this point!
Still Life with Elephant is a slight departure in style from her first book in that it has a much more somber tone. Neelie Sterling recently learned that her husband, Matt, is going to be a father—with another woman. Now, she is struggling to pay the bills and mend her heart by throwing herself into her horse training business. When she learns her wandering husband is headed to Zimbabwe to rescue an elephant, she decides to go along in hopes of also rescuing her failed marriage.
Ms. Singer takes the reader on an exciting ride to Africa to obtain said elephant, but the story doesn’t end there. Once the elephant is home, Neelie must tame her so she can become a safe member of the animal sanctuary where she now lives. Meanwhile, Neelie's relationship with Matt and the sanctuary’s benefactor become more complicated.
The introspective nature of Still Life with Elephant touched me deeply. My heart ached right along with Neelie’s, and I felt as though I was a part of her successes. I related to her hearing problem (or is it more of a listening problem?), where she often hears something quite different from what the person actually said, because I often do the same thing. Neelie is incredibly real, with real-life problems—even though those problems come in a package most of us are not familiar with. Many of us have struggled with warring emotions and major life changes, and Ms. Singer presents them very poignantly. Neelie is likable, someone I could imagine having as a friend, and I missed her as soon as the book was over.
Although the overall theme of the books is somber, there are some light moments where Ms. Singer injects her delightful sense of humor. There are some wonderful interactions between the characters and enough lightness to keep the book from being depressing.
Still Life with Elephant is a journey. Neelie travels many miles, and in the end she not only rescues her elephant, but herself. She enters a new era of her life, leaving behind many of the trappings of the old one. I greatly enjoyed taking the journey with her and felt as though I’d changed a little myself by the time it was over. I highly recommend it, along with Judy Reene Singer’s first book, Horseplay.
I had the opportunity to ask Ms. Singer a few questions about Still Life with Elephant: A Novel.
JW: What inspired the story of Still Life with Elephant?
Judy Reene Singer: There is an elephant named Fritha who lives near me, in upstate New York, much like the elephant in Still Life. She had been rescued many years ago from Viet Nam where she had been napalmed as an infant. Yes, you read that right. Our government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to napalm the elephants during the Viet Nam war as a means of deterring transportation. She was flown to New York and treated, and lives in a sanctuary about ten miles from me. I had the opportunity to meet her through a good friend and was struck by her dignity and forgiveness and incredible majesty. Honestly, you have to stand near one, in a small barn, with nothing between you, to understand how incredible this is.
JW: Do any of your characters come from real life?
Judy Reene Singer: I suppose there is a little of me in all my characters. Neelie and I do share some traits. I train horses as an avocation, specializing for many years in troubled horses (my bones don't heal so fast anymore, so I just train good horses now!) and I have a habit of not paying attention and thus mishearing conversations, sometimes to an absurd conclusion.
Jennifer Walker: You seem to know a lot about elephants. Do you have real life experience with them?
Judy Reene Singer: I had to do a lot of research for Still Life and ultimately became a foster mom to four baby elephants in Kenya at the David Sheldrick Animal Sanctuary in Kenya. I did a lot of traveling, met a lot of elephants, and fell in love a million times. Fritha is still my favorite and I visit her on a frequent basis.
Jennifer Walker: I understand you have a sequel coming out. Can you give us a sneak peek?
Judy Reene Singer: The sequel is called An Inconvenient Elephant and it takes Neelie to a new level in rescue. We'll meet Diamond-Rose Tremaine, a gal she meets when they both flee Kenya during the political riots. Diamond-Rose has spent twenty years in the bush as a safari leader and isn't quite housebroken anymore, but Neelie offers her a place to stay. Diamond is sort of a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Eloise and gets Neelie involved with one of the most daring elephant rescues ever.
Jennifer Walker: How did you get your start as a published author?
Judy Reene Singer: I wrote for magazines for years, mostly horse magazines, since horses are my first love (besides dogs, cats, parrots and sundry other creatures!) I had a lot of fans through my humorous feature stories (The Chronicle of the Horse was gracious enough to publish me a lot) and they suggested a book. I had so much material! And so I wrote Horseplay.
A huge thanks to Judy Reene Singer for consenting to be my first review on my new blog! Best wishes for the sequel; I'm looking forward to reading it.