August 12, 2011

Review: Dale Loves Sophie to Death by Robb Forman Dew

Dale Loves Sophie to Death: A Novel

Dale Loves Sophie to Death by Robb Forman Dew

A novel that explores themes of familial and romantic bonds as it tells the story of a woman whose husband stays behind in New England while she journeys to her Midwestern hometown to spend a summer.
Author Biography: Robb Forman Dew is the author of The Time of Her Life, and Fortunate Lives, as well as a memoir, The Family Heart. She also was a teacher at Iowa Writers' Workshop and has contributed stories to Southern Review and The New Yorker, among others.

I picked this book up at the library on a whim, and ended up reading nearly the whole thing while standing in the aisle. Weighing in at a slim 217 pages, Dale Loves Sophie to Death is a quick read... but not a light one.

From the jacket blurb:
"Dew's astonishing debut illuminates the varieties of romantic love and the unexpected rewards of family life as it tells the story of a woman whose husband stays behind in New England while she and their three young children return to her midwestern town to spend the summer. "

Interesting enough, but that's just the beginning. As the story begins, we meet Dinah, the first protagonist, and learn that this trip is one she's taken each summer for the past eight years, using the time away from her 'real life' to reconnect with childhood and family. We meet her mother, a decidedly unsympathetic character, and her father (who is even more unsympathetic), and wonder where this woman who is trying so hard to be the 'good' wife and mother came from.

Her 'other half' is Martin, her husband of many years. In him, we find a good man and husband, but one that occasionally finds himself unmoored in life, searching for who knows what.

Dinah and Martin have come to rely on the two weeks apart as a time to recharge and remember how and why they originally came together. We see their separate journeys on this particular summer, as Dinah deals with a crisis of faith in her family, and Martin deals with a crisis of faith in his marriage.

I've often looked for a story about a real marriage, dealing with real emotions and the tiny things that make up every day life. This is that book. Though the writer's style is a little bit pedantic at times, she's got the petty irritations and everyday joys of marriage life down. Upon parting, both partners have a similar feeling: From Martin,

      "...and these summers they parted mute with bewildered misery, feeling at once that they were being forced apart and yet each anxious to be away from the other."

From Dinah:

     "She looked at his clean head, silhouetted against the car window, and she wanted to weep at the misunderstanding between them. There was no one, no others but the children, to whom she was more tied." 
Do those sentiments sound familiar? They do to me. And they're just the tip of the iceberg of, "Good God! I know exactly how that feels!"
In the course of the book, Dinah comes to a sort of truce with her parents and a serenity with her own life that rings so very true, while Martin's brief foray into infidelity (one that didn't even horrify me as much as such scenes often do, because it is written and explained so well) ends with his realization of how very blessed he really is. From the last page:
     "...with the children in the back seat and his wife beside him, he realized with wonder and relief that he was happy." 
Dew's style is a little stiff, at times, but she fills her story with the little details of family life that ring so very true. She also never flinches at the truth of a long term relationship: the push/pull of parting and the awkwardness of reunions after a long separation are dealt with honestly. I loved this line:
     "But always at the end of their summer separation they could only simulate, at first, their remembered affection, because, inescapably, there was a trace of shyness between them."
YES! Truth! The thing is, though, they do make that effort, knowing that life will return to normal.

This book was a welcome surprise. I'd not heard of story, nor author, but found it absorbing. In fact, I found myself, days later, worrying about one of their children (that was not a normal flu, I just know it!).

That, my friends, is writing. I give this four coffee cups out of five.


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