An isolated Greek island in Larry Osborne’s Beautiful Animals welcomes the wealthy every summer to bask in the sun while idling away the hours in luxury, but one summer an unexpected guest arrives. With a slow sinister spin, Osborne combines a commentary on the shallow lives of the rich while also exposing their vulnerability.
The story begins with an innocuous description of two families vacationing in extravagant houses on the cliffs set against sparkling seascapes and sunwashed cliffs. Naomi Codrington, who has just been fired from her law firm, is spending the summer with her father, an art dealer with an implied shady past, and her stepmother, a friend of the Onassis family. She befriends Samantha Haldene, a younger American college student, whose family is new to summers on the island. All the descriptions of the surroundings, the food, the houses, the leisurely pace of their lives, their boredom seem endless, until a chance encounter suddenly begins the action, and the timeliness of Syrian refugees invades the pristine vista.
Naomi and Samantha spend their days swimming, drinking at the local cafes, and smoking pot purchased from a wild local who periodically rounds the island on her small boat. One day as they explore one of the outermost beaches, they find a bedraggled man lying on the beach, seemingly washed up on shore. Assuming he is an Arab refugee, they decide to care for him, bringing him clothes, water, food, and eventually secretly hiding him in a shepherd’s hut in the hills. But this is an island and there are no secrets from the locals. Naomi is forced to pay for silence, and decides checking him into the Four Seasons under her name is safer (after she has cleaned him up, of course).
The story flips back and forth between the two wealthy families and Faoud, the Syrian Arab whose background is not as desperate as his appearance; in fact, he misses his own life of privilege before it was taken away. Naomi, the sleekest of the beautiful animals in the tale, is also the most lethal. As she plots to have Faoud steal from her father’s house, her selfishness seeps through her outward veneer of “charity-worker passion.” Samantha, the younger and more impressionable, follows Naomi’s strong will, imitating and idolizing her.
When the burglary turns into murder, and Faoud escapes in the expensive Peugeot with Naomi’s father’s credit cards, passport, and the keys to the family’s Italian villa, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley begins to haunt the narrative. For a while, it seems Faoud will finally be able to live the good life, buying expensive shoes and drinking good wine – until another unexpected stranger arrives to thwart the plan.
Osborne’s plot twists appear unexpectedly, with detailed treatment of the characters as they prowl through life: the self-satisfaction of the young girls, preening for Faoud’s attention “What beautiful animals we are, Sam thought, beautiful as panthers”; Faoud’s determination, as a migrant “Either you act or you are shipped back in a cage to face an anonymous fate that no one will care about anyway.”
Of course, someone is always watching them, waiting to pounce. Sadly, Osborne’s note on the refugee crisis echoes the modern dilemma in Europe:
“. . . If we keep them out it destroys them; if we let them in it destroys us…”
Osborne’s book was riveting but left a sour taste with me, much like Flynn’s Gone Girl. The ending is realistic but not satisfying. I wonder who will play Naomi in the movie.