Some books you read because they teach you something, some books are read for lengthy book club discussions, and some books, like “Must Love Dogs: Lucky Enough,” the eighth book in this engaging and humorous series, you read simply to escape from reality and jump into the life of Sarah Hurlihy as she navigates her at-times fraught relationship with John, with their ever-growing menagerie of pets, and with her often-crazy extended Irish family. Sarah’s life is never dull, and when you factor in her job as a preschool teacher with some very precocious children and their very suburban parents, you get lots of humor as well as many touching moments.
Sarah and John live in the large family house she grew up in. It’s located in the quiet, coastal (fictitious) town of Marshbury, Massachusetts. Their house is home to many, including the single, pregnant Polly, who works at Sarah’s preschool as an assistant teacher, Sarah’s brother, who resides in the trailer perpetually parked outside the house, and the collection of dogs and cats they’ve collected and rescued in past novels. Pebbles and her kittens are actually based on a real incident when Cook and her husband rescued a feral mama cat and her kittens from their front steps. Pet lovers will understand the time and responsibility involved as they watch Sarah and John walk the dogs, feed the cats, and responsibly have the cats sterilized—humorous antics included.
But this story really centers around St. Patrick’s Day, because in this part of the Irish Riviera where the Hurlihys live, it’s a huge holiday. In fact, as Cook writes, “it’s pretty much mandatory to be a little bit Irish for the whole month of March.” Sarah’s father, whose capers and malapropisms never fail to elicit a smile, is running for St. Patrick’s Day mayor, and their large corner property is enveloped in green signs announcing his candidacy. At Sarah’s school, the young students are assigned the project of making a leprechaun trap. One of the many engaging aspects of Cook’s writing is that she really brings to life the preschool where Sarah works. We see how important that time is and how hard the teachers work (and play) in order to provide an enriching experience for the children. And we love reading about the precocious kids. When two kids do something funny, Cook offers another student’s response, “Pandora rolled her eyes at them, demonstrating both kindergarten readiness and that she’d make a great teenager one day.” She describes a preschool activity as a perfect STEM project, and then brilliantly explains to readers who might not understand that acronym what it is and why that is important for students. Teachers and parents will chuckle at the preschool depictions.
In this novel, Cook cleverly inserts a reference to the movie version of the original book when John shares that “For a while, I felt like maybe I should build wooden boats. By hand. The real way.” Cook’s writing is clever and funny, and so very smart that we flip page after page, reveling in seeing the world through Sarah’s eyes. Sarah’s first person narrative enables us to know her feelings, and she’s the kind of person we’d want as a friend. She’s funny, supportive, kind, empathetic, and loving. And obviously a lot of fun to be with. Except when she’s obsessed with getting pregnant and having a baby—which is a large part of this plot.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this novel is just about laughs and a bit of romance. There’s plenty that’s extraordinarily thoughtful as well, and elements of the story are very touching. Animal lovers and rescuers will be proud of Sarah and John’s determination to do the right thing by their cats and prevent them from bringing more cats into the world. Those same people will howl with laughter as Cook expertly reveals the extent of Sarah and John’s naiveté as they think that putting post-surgical mama cat in the bathtub will keep her safe because she will stay there with the bedding and litter box. Uh, no.
What we love about this series is that Sarah and her life—as she searches for love and a comfortable place in her unique family—is entirely relatable. She’s human like we are, with flaws that we understand and can sympathize with. We understand her desire to be loved, and we can empathize with her worry that her life — like our own — isn’t quite going according to plan. And the ending is perfectly lovely, with a sentiment that all readers can aspire to. It’s inspirational and reflective of the manner in which Cook has created characters who are all flawed, who all have doubts and problems, and whom we all adore in spite of—or because of—those very foibles. We are like those characters, all of us, flawed in our own ways, at times doubting, at times worried. Reading about Sarah and John and Sarah’s loving and crazy family and their antics provides us with the chuckles, warm feelings, and thought-provoking dilemmas that we expect from Claire Cook’s novels. As always, all the ingredients in this Cook book add up to a delicious reading experience.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.