On the surface, La La seems stable and driven: She’s in veterinary school and engaged to a chiropractor named Clem. No one would guess that her father, Zev, a lifelong thief, began teaching his daughter how to pick locks when she was still in elementary school. When one of Zev’s burglaries goes so badly that a homeowner winds up in a coma, La La finds herself torn between the life she has built in Denver and the life Zev gave her after her feckless mother left them.
Before knowing which path La La takes, it’s important to know that the protagonist in R.L. Maizes’s “Other People’s Pets” is an animal empath, capable of sensing pain and needs in nearby beasts – and vice versa, which is how she was saved as a child after falling through the ice on a skating excursion. A black dog appeared through the woods and held young La La above water until help came. Now, as a veterinarian in training, La La’s ability to sense what’s bothering a patient – be it a tiny terrier or a large bovine – endears her to classmates like her best friend, Nat, and compels professors to ask for her opinions.
La La, who consumes no animal products – she walks the walk – co-parents two dogs with Clem, a bonded pair from the shelter named Black and Blue. They have a lovely, ordered, low-key life. But the pull of the past leads La La back to crime. And it’s so easy! Once you know a few lock-picking tricks, the McMansions of Cherry Creek and Longview beckon, with their socks full of cash and top drawers filled with jewelry.
Of course, it gets tougher. Consumed by anxiety, La La makes mistakes. Her father’s lawyer demands more and more money as billable hours increase. Zev is under house arrest with only the aging cat Mo for company. When Clem finds out about La La’s activities, he leaves. Meanwhile, La La responds to every animal she encounters along the way, from a Lab with sore hips to a parrot who is too cold, risking more and more as she flails, trying simultaneously to gather the money for her father’s bail, find her missing mother and figure out her own future.
As many wise people have noted: You can have it all, but not at the same time. La La is caught in a web woven by a woman who never wanted to parent and a man who never wanted to be a role model.
Sometimes it takes a village to help a girl become a young woman, and despite the weak links that surround La La (including Nat’s tweaker boyfriend; her mother, as feckless now as ever; and Zev), she rebounds with the help of Clem and Nat and a vet who once tutored her in high school math. “Other People’s Pets,” with its lively voice and unexpected characters, makes a perfect addition to anyone’s summer reading pile, but it is required for those who understand that coming of age has absolutely nothing to do with age.
Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”