While the title of Becky Mandelbaum’s The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals may indicate this is a novel about animals, it is very much more a human novel. Set primarily in a small, conservative town in St. Clare, Kansas, just after the 2016 election, the book focuses mainly on two characters: Mona, a sanctuary owner and mother (in that order), and Ariel, her estranged daughter.
For Mona, the Bright Side Sanctuary is her whole life, even when it comes at the expense of her husband and daughter. Mona is exhausted and in over her head, but she can’t give up her work, as “caretaking seemed like the only reasonable occupation in a world that needed so much care.”
Mona’s identity as a rescuer may feel inconsistent at times — at one point she swerves dangerously in the road to avoid killing a raccoon (“What if that had been a human baby crawling across the road?” she asks her daughter), but she has also been accused of mistreatment of the animals in her care, leading to lapsed donations and the current financial woes that have led her to putting the sanctuary up for sale — yet these details add to the essence of her character: a woman who cares deeply yet is in way over her head. In one scene, she stitches a dog’s wound with dental floss, using only Benadryl as an anesthetic, and a journalist documents other horrors: “a sheep blinded by an eye infection, a dog with a missing limb that had yet or receive medical attention, and a horse that could barely move due to severe malnutrition.” (Note to animal lovers: these examples aren’t the worst.)
However, this novel is not centered around the animals, who feel more like backdrops to the human characters’ complexities: Ariel, friendless and unpopular at school, feels she will always be “the weird, quiet girl whose mom hoarded animals,” and for Mona, the mess of her home and her inability to keep up with the animals she wants to save show the conflict between her compassion and her inability to fully commit to it — not only by the instances of neglect but by being vegetarian rather than vegan, and by calling animals “it” rather than “he” or “she.”
The animals, instead, serve to reveal the human dramas of the story: the futility of good intentions, the inability to escape the past, and the tumultuous nature of friendship, parenting, and love.
When Ariel learns about a vicious hate crime against the sanctuary in a news story, she returns home after six years away with no communication with her mother. While the actual circumstances leading to Mona and Ariel’s estrangement are not dramatic, this may be why their situation feels so real. Both women harbor secrets that have deeply affected their lives and relationships, especially with each other.
When Ariel returns, Mona is not welcoming—she wishes Ariel had “shown up six years ago or not at all”—and neither is Gideon, the sanctuary’s farmhand and Ariel’s first love. We learn the details of Ariel’s leaving and how it led to six years of physical and emotional distance, for reasons simple yet authentic, and “the truth of it nauseated her.”
The narrative alternates between Ariel, Mona, and Ariel’s fiancé, Dex, who is left behind at their home in Lawrence to learn about all that Ariel has kept from him and to wonder when — and whether — she will return. Finally he decides to show up at the sanctuary, uninvited, which unearths many of the long-buried secrets among them all.
The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals offers more insights into human nature than animal nature, especially in its 2016 post-election timeframe and the sanctuary’s location in a farm town, where Ariel can’t help but notice that “murdering animals made you rich while caring for them made you poor.” Ultimately, the novel is an intricate mother-daughter story, including romances that remind us that love stories are complicated and don’t always come with happy endings. While readers may expect more of a focus on animals, the human characters are genuine and real — and, as in real life, the book reminds us that there are no neat and tidy answers or solutions.