Cyrus Mills is in a heap of trouble. He’s broke, his license to practice veterinary medicine has been suspended, he’s racked up massive legal bills he cannot pay, and though the death of his estranged father has left him with an animal clinic in Vermont, the place turns out to be drowning in debt. Oh, there are two other issues — Mills is an emotional wreck who recoils from human intimacy and he doesn’t interact well with animals. His expertise has been in pathology, rendering him more comfortable working in labs than with Labs.
Returning to his hometown after 14 years away, he finds, due to a bank demand, that he has less than a week to solve all his problems. In six days, can a man pay off his debts, unlock the deep mysteries of his past, discover true love, execute a complete emotional transformation, and find redemption through a parade of peeing, panting, vomiting, pets? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say the jacket description of “The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs’’ as a “winsome tale” is a clue. It’s a little “Murder, She Wrote” meets “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Written by Nick Trout, a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center, and author of the nonfiction bestseller “Tell Me Where It Hurts,” it’s no surprise that the novel is at its best during the medical sleuthing Mills does when diagnosing patients. Palpating bellies, inserting rectal thermometers, pressing gums to gauge capillary refill times. Simply estimating the age of a golden retriever reveals Trout’s expert eye and poetic appreciation of dogs: “Beyond the obvious gray muzzle, her elbows are thick and calloused, like leather patches on a threadbare jacket, worn thin from lying down too much.”
There is magic when he inserts a finger into the birth canal of a cat in labor and finds a kitten: “Instantly, I make a startling discovery — claws. Tiny, soft, and perfectly formed claws.”
Readers who love animals will learn a lot. “Pedigree cats have a much higher risk of a difficult labor than cats of mixed breeding.” Macadamia nuts are poisonous to dogs. Having two eyes of different colors, “heterochromia,” is rare in people but more common in water buffaloes.
There are also lovely passages portraying how much pets mean to people. “But this particular young lady,” says an elderly client of his mixed-breed dog, “is totally tuned into yours truly. I am her world and she is mine, the constant of my life, the reminder that nothing else matters if we have each other.”
The book’s conceit, that all this happens in six days, is a curse and a blessing. It’s preposterous, for one thing. Many characters are no more than cartoons. And by necessity, dialogue often becomes expository. Relationships don’t have time to breathe. But the plot does fly along. And the one thread that plays out naturally is that of the novice vet’s learning curve with his patients. It is the heart of the book. We see the education of Dr. Mills dog by dog by cat. His heart grows with each case. And by the time the elderly veterinarian who acts as emotional and professional guide says, “there’s a part of you that’s finally coming alive,” the reader believes him.Vicki Constantine Croke is writing a book for Random House about J.H. Williams and his daring rescue of a group of refugees from Burma to India on elephant back during World War II. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.