Convinced he has torpedoed his relationship with his twin sister by letting her cat escape into the night, Jericho Adams is desperate to get back into her good graces. He is convinced he can accomplish this by providing her with a replacement cat. Since Aquariums & More is the closest pet store to his apartment, Jericho decides to give them a shot, despite the rather dilapidated appearance of the store, inside and out. As it turns out, there is a lot more…well, off about the place than just its being rundown. The sole clerk is, to put it mildly, a consummate jerk in a league of his own. But Jericho will not back down from the challenge of charming the clerk—or at least satisfying the clerk’s escalating demands of proof that Jericho can provide a suitable home for a live pet. Jericho soon finds himself a frequent visitor to the shop and very often the target of the clerk’s acerbic barbs.
For years, Harinder Mangal has kept the pet enclosures at Aquariums & More immaculately clean. The rest of the store, well…maid isn’t part of his job description. But he does take it upon himself to place every one of the store’s animals in good homes. And Harinder can smell a fraud a mile off. It is part of the reason why he keeps adding ever more stringent requirements to the adoption procedure for Jericho. Harinder is convinced Jericho will give up, thus proving he was never worthy of having a pet. But Harinder wasn’t prepared for the sheer tenacity Jericho demonstrates in meeting everyone one of Harinder’s made-up demands. Harinder and Jericho even end up somehow enjoying their mutually antagonistic meetings at the pet store. So much so that when Harinder finds himself between a rock and a hard place, Jericho casually offers whatever Harinder needs. Neither Jericho nor Harinder ever expected that small showing of human kindness to lead anywhere…let alone somewhere good. Can two men who so often feel like they have to keep the world at a distance find a way to be comfortable with closeness?
Cat’s Got Your Heart is a contemporary, enemies-to-lovers style, get-together story that is set somewhere in the American Northeast in the late fall (and ending just before Christmas). It centers on the two main characters: Harinder Mangal, a transgender Indian twenty-something orphan with a delightfully foul attitude towards others of his species, but a heart of solid gold when it comes to the pets he cares for; and Jericho Adams, a tenacious twenty-year-old transplant from the South who makes his living doing webcomics and working a Patreon account and, despite a hefty online following, is rather an introvert. These two characters could not be more like water and oil if they tried and I just thoroughly enjoyed watching how they mix and separate. For me, the enemies-to-lovers trope is one of the best things about this book and a huge part of that is due to the author’s commitment to it. Roughly the first half of the entire book centers squarely on how much verbal vitriol and visceral vehemence Harinder bears for people in general and Jericho’s dig-your-toes-in attitude when it comes to the concept of a sunken cost. In other words, I felt I really got to revel in how much these two start off as enemies.
The slow burn of this means there isn’t really just a single scene where the clouds part and everything is flowers and sunshine for our two MCs. It’s a stray thought about how attractive someone’s eyelashes are appended with a mental “for real?” comment in the narration. We see both Harinder and Jericho both slowly realize that despite the sheer prickly (or straight up hypodermic needle-y) exterior of the other, there are redeeming qualities. I just think this really mirrors my experience of attraction. First, you need to spend a lot of time with someone in some mundane context. Next, you realize this person has some quality that is admirable. Finally, the admiration for this quality makes you reevaluate the packaging and you come to see outward appearances as pleasing. No small task when one character is literally an asshole to every other human and the other has trouble with self-image.
Given the distinctive personalities of Jericho and Harinder, I did feel like the constant barbs were, at times, a lot. It took me a while to appreciate that this was (or came to be) simply how they could/chose to communicate with each other. I initially liked how their bickering represented a challenge for the story/characters to overcome. Then, it was interesting to see how they incorporated this pure “I am an asshole about certain things” aspect of themselves into their relationship. But finally, towards the end, when they’ve begun to embark on a romantic relationship and still they communicated with (affectionately?) derogatory modes of speech…I was a bit concerned. Yet even this gets addressed on page. It’s nothing more than a brief, blunt comment from Jericho, but I loved that he clearly comments about this facet of his relationship with Harinder. It’s a small thing and does not lead to a material change in their language, but having them acknowledge this element of the relationship made the language feel more like their own couples-language rather than a hold-over from when they honestly just treated each other as (poorly/distantly as) they would have a stranger.
Overall, I loved the journey we go on with these two. Jericho and Harinder are an excellent match for each other, two strong characters that balance one another out. Their personalities are as markedly different as their appearances, but they find common ground. The subplot of adopting a cat not only gives the characters a reason to meet and keep on meeting, but the hijinks of going through an adoption and the lies both characters tell one another in an effort to expedite/end the process serve as a later way to test their relationship. If you want a story starring a diverse cast that explores how two very unlikely, very different people can find someone to share their life with (and want to live vicariously through Harinder as he tells retail customers in no uncertain terms what absolute douchecanoes they are), I highly recommend this book.