The Feline Mystique

by Clea Simon

Published by St. Martin's Press

368 pages, 2004




Kitten Smitten Women

Reviewed by David Abrams


On the surface, I'm the wrong demographic for Clea Simon's The Feline Mystique. I'm male and though I now own three cats (or, rather, they own me), I started off in life as a committed dog person.

As a boy, my bedroom walls were papered with posters of St. Bernards, Afghans, Pointers and Dalmatians. Above the head of my bed hung an American Kennel Club chart of all the dog breeds. I referred to it constantly, like the periodic table of elements. I wrote poems about dogs. I subscribed to magazines like Dog World and Dog Fancy. Once, for a period of two weeks, my breath smelled like dog biscuits.

Cats were never part of the equation. I vowed never to own one of those finicky claw-shredders -- not even if you offered me a hundred-dollar bill on a ten-foot pole.

Well, one pole, a Ben Franklin and a sweet little calico named Callie later, I had succumbed. I still don't know how she did it, but Callie melted me into a puddle of love and since then feline has completely replaced canine in my life. Callie is long gone by now, but she's been replaced by a parade of furballs: Doodle, Latte, Chaos, Mozart and Little One. I now look forward to the times when I come home from work and immediately feel a supple little body weaving around my ankles. I am happy to be one of 35 million people in the U.S. who are held under the sway of these creatures who curl in our laps and purr in our ears.

This kind of devotion to cats runs rampant throughout Simon's book, subtitled "On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats." Yes, even though I'm a man, I can relate to Robin, a one-time dog lover, who tells Simon, "I always had this stereotypic view of cats as aloof. I knew of people who had very strong connections to their cats and I never understood it." Then, when Robin moves in with a roommate who owns a cat, she says, "I have this great memory of moving and this cat greeting us -- she had this funny meow, she went 'meep, meep' -- and I discovered that cats could be affectionate and warm, and that won me over."

Simon's lovingly written book is bound to win you over, too -- especially if you're female and already own a cat, but also if you're male and just trying to understand your woman and her feline obsession. Simon, a journalist and author of two other books (Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings and Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads), takes a close look at the bonds women share with cats. She connects cats to the way women love others and how they feel about themselves. Through dozens of interviews with cat-owners, she burrows deep in the psyche of kitten-smitten women, shattering stereotypes along the way.

Consider ... the lonely single woman who sees her cat as her mistress, her lover, or her boss is the stuff of endless jokes and urban legends. As is the depressed wife who confides in her cat, rather than her husband, or the "crazy old cat lady" who collects felines like her peers collect porcelain knickknacks. Cat and woman, bound to each other and often separated in some essential way form the world, this pairing has provided material for myriad parodies. 

In the pages of The Feline Mystique, we meet dozens of women and hundreds of cats. Yes, there are some "crazies" alongside more mentally balanced cat owners. For instance, there's a shocking portrait of a cat hoarder who has so many animals roaming her house that she only finds a missing pet after discovering it dead, trapped behind her bed. Simon pities these ostracized and isolated ladies, but the sight of 37 cats in a cramped basement is enough to send a shiver up anyone's spine. Simon's descriptions in the chapter called "Obsessions" are vivid and chilling.

We also meet a shelter volunteer who agonizes over having to euthanize unwanted cats, a cat psychic, a professional show cat who brings comfort to residents of a nursing home, Wiccans who channel spirits through their pets, a tiger wrangler for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and dozens upon dozens of women -- single, married, divorced, widowed -- who talk about their close (sometimes too close) relationships with their cats.

Men are sometimes too easily dismissed -- especially if they're die-hard dog-men, or if they're allergic to cat hair, or if they plain just don't like sharing romantic time with a cat wriggling between the cuddling couple. There are plenty of men on these pages -- Simon's husband, Jon, for instance -- who understand their wives and girlfriends need plenty of significant "cat time;" but there are also plenty of guys who just don't get it. And most of the women are okay with that. "Frankly," says one single woman, "[my girlfriends and I] prefer the company of cats to most of the boyfriends who pass through."

What makes The Feline Mystique such an engaging book is Simon's personal journal of life with her own cat, Cyrus, the mixed-breed longhair with the "imperious bat face" who was 16 years old when Simon started writing the book. Indeed, the first words of The Feline Mystique are "This is a love story." Simon's deep devotion to her Cyrus runs with the pitter-pat of soft paws throughout these pages, ultimately culminating with a chapter on grief and letting go that will break even the hardest of hearts. Heck, it might even bring a tear to the eye of a devout dog man. | June 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.