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So you thought people usually have the big stuff in life worked out by their early thirties?
Yeah, sorry 'bout that.
Codi Noline contradicts the wisdom that wisdom comes with age. Sure, when we meet her at the beginning of the novel, she seems pretty put together. She's in her early thirties, she's finished school (like, a lot of school), and she's headed home to take care of her father, who has Alzheimer's. She looks just like a grown-up woman.
But she's not.
As it turns out, Codi has no idea who she is. Her mother is dead, and since she's estranged from her father, she feels like an orphan. Codi's missing a family, but she's also missing a past. It's not exactly amnesia, but most of Codi's life before fifteen is either hazy or missing. She literally can't remember the name or face of the woman who took care of her and her sister every day for fourteen years of their childhood. That's not a good sign.
Codi also quits a lot of things. She went through med school and residency, but she's not a doctor. She just gave it up. She's been with the same guy for ten years, but she's not in a relationship anymore. She's worked at 7-Eleven and a supermarket, but she's not a cashier, either.
Basically, Codi's problem is that she doesn't know what her identity is. Her own consciousness is as empty as a mirror-maze full of vampires. Codi herself is sort of an emotional vampire, too. She's spent the last decade living with a guy named Carlo, just sort of hitching a ride on his life in the hopes that it'll give her some direction.
Good luck with that, Codi.
The most important person in Codi's life is her sister, Hallie. They've been inseparable since they were kids, and when we meet them, they've been living together for a while. Codi admires Hallie. She feels like Hallie basically brings all the joy and meaning into her life, so when Hallie takes off for Nicaragua, Codi basically feels like an orphan all over again.
There's nothing wrong with thinking your kid sister is the cat's meow, but Codi sort of thinks of the two of them as halves of one person. Hallie loves plants, for example, and Codi loves animals. Hallie pursues happiness, and Codi mostly feels miserable. Hallie helps change things, and Codi clocks hours at 7-Eleven. Hallie is brave, and Codi is a coward.
Notice a pattern here?
To Hallie's credit, she doesn't just accept the adulation from her big sister. She fights pretty hard against her Codi's tendency to make her out as some kind of demigod. At one point, Hallie tells Codi in a letter, "If I get another letter that mentions SAVING THE WORLD, I am sending you, by return mail, a letter bomb" (18.223). But even then, the letter mostly just makes Codi feel bad.
One of the interesting things about Animal Dreams is that for all of Codi's character development, in some ways, it seems like she is never quite going to get over her messed-up sibling relationship. We hear less and less from Hallie as Codi becomes surer of herself, but because Hallie dies in the end, Codi never really has to learn to live with a less-than-perfect version of her sister.
Sorry—spoilers. Sad, sad, spoilers.
Codi's hang-ups about heroism make her return to Grace at the beginning of the novel particularly difficult for her. The town is sort of desperately in need of a hero. Its river is almost dead from pollution. Without the river, the last remaining jobs will leave Grace, and the people will go with them. Codi recognizes the problem, but since she sees herself as a kind of not-so-innocent bystander, she's pretty much like, "Meh, not my problem."
Of course, there are other tough things about Grace besides the acid run-off. Like the people. Codi doesn't have many memories of growing up in Grace, but she is pretty sure it mostly involved constant rejection by everyone. The kids at school made fun of her shoes. Even the old women we mean. They referred to her as "la huérfana," or the orphan (16.41). Not nice.
As it turns out, Codi's wrong about both Grace and herself. In fact, those old women think so highly of Codi that they ask for her help in saving the town. Bringing Grace back from the brink of ghost-town-dom isn't something that Codi does all by herself, of course. She's not superwoman, either. But she does help. It's Codi's training as a biologist that leads the women to believe that Grace can be saved at all. Maybe there's hope for Codi yet.
Specifically, the older women of Grace also ask Codi to write a history of Grace. That's pretty important, since Codi has always felt like an outsider in the town. Now, because her father did research in genetics, Codi has always known that everyone in Grace is related. (Don't think too hard about that.) She thinks that her family—the Nolines—is the one exception. As she learns more about Grace, though, she also starts to suspect that her family isn't as out of place here as she always thought. Back to that in a moment.
Speaking of history, one of the key elements of Codi's character is her absolutely terrible memory. She's forgotten some big things: near-death experiences, triumphs on the playground, stuff like that.
Most of it seems to stem from the traumatic baby-related experiences she had as a kid. There's that time when her mom totally bought the farm after giving birth to her sister—but there's also that time when Codi got pregnant at fifteen and then had a miscarriage in the bathroom and had to bury the baby alone in a dry riverbed.
Oh, yeah. That was pretty bad.
So what's the connection between lost babies and lost memories? Basically, Codi's so fundamentally changed by the loss of her baby that she erases everything that went before that experience. In fact, her willingness to erase and change her own memories makes Codi a lot like her father, Doc, a guy who's given to altering photographs in order to change the past. He's kind of like a doddering Southwestern version of the bureaucrats from 1984.
Doc wasn't happy with his own background, so he made up a different version of it. In doing so, he thoroughly confused his daughters—and paved the way for Codi's identity issues.
Codi is afraid of the dark (symbol alert: that means she's afraid of losing her identity), and she has this dream over and over again in which there's a popping sound and she goes blind. It's going to take Codi all novel long to figure out the connection between these nightmares and her memory problems, but as she begins to get back memories from her childhood, she also begins to understand who she is.
Part of what Doc did to his kids was to lie to them about their family's origins. As a result, Codi thinks she has no home. She's always wandering around, from country to country, job to job, and state to state, trying to figure out where home is. That hasn't been working too well for her so far. Growing up, it turns out, means learning how to stay put.
In a lot of ways, Codi's challenge in Animal Dreams isn't so much find a new life or identity for herself; it's to recover the identity she lost at fifteen. By the end, she figures out that she always had a family in Grace among the older generation of women in the town. She realizes that her dad has always loved her, and she even gets back together with Loyd, the father of that original lost child.
It turns out that you can go home again.