United in Near-Infidelity
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
By Patricia Gaffney
Shaye Areheart. 355 pp. $23
Andrew and Dash Bateman, Patricia Gaffney's communication-challenged couple, are not easy to live with. Nor do the y find it easy to live with each other. At first sight, Dash resembles one of those enthusiastic, good-natured folk who always talk your ear off and never hear a word you say. She is quite unlike Andrew, her husband of more than 20 years, who speaks in measured sentences and skirts carefully around any controversial subject. He is a change-averse, neatnik history professor devoted to his students and not interested in the academic rat race. He is also allergic to dogs and obsessively interested in his body's every ache or pain.
As the novel opens, he is fretting that his headache might turn into a migraine. "I didn't take a pill in time," he complains piteously. Dash meanwhile muses: "How many more faculty parties would I have to go to in my lifetime, fifty? A hundred?" "Mad Dash" is the chronicle of what happens when allergic Andrew sneezes and refuses to let the impulsive Dash adopt a puppy they find one night half-frozen on their doorstep. This predictable reaction from predictable Andrew is the last straw for unpredictable Dash. She realizes with dismay that she is "married to a man who drinks warm milk." She leaves him in high dudgeon, "wrapping the puppy in a chenille throw, hauling open the front door and slamming it behind me." She flees to their cabin in rural Virginia -- taking with her the un-housetrained mutt, by now named Sock to honor its single white paw.
Their two lives run in oddly parallel lines given the divergence of their personalities. Dash, accompanied by Sock, tries to find herself in the village of Dolley (population 649), while Andrew remains in Washington with an aging dog named Hobbes, who spends most of his time wrapped in a tattered blanket. Andrew almost begins an affair with Elizabeth O'Neal, also a history professor, who "always wears black" and conveniently lives alone in a mansion she inherited from her rich uncle. "How about a rain check?" is Andrew's less than impulsive response to her offer of recreational sex. Dash almost begins an affair with the stolid but wonderfully competent handyman-farmer Owen Roby, who lives near the Batemans' cabin and raises ducks for the oven. Her almost-infidelity is derailed by the sight of Owen's duck-decapitating equipment.
The scene is vividly set, and we actually come to care about these two diametrically opposed veterans of 20 years together. Those years have encompassed the birth and growing up of Chloe, their only child. Now she has left for college, and other familiar and painful markers of aging are in place for her parents. Dash's mother, whom she adored, has recently died. Andrew's father, formerly a distinguished lawyer, is irritably losing his mental faculties in an assisted living home. The domestic vessel is springing leaks.
Gaffney's most successful novel to date, "The Saving Graces," was an early entry in the now well-established genre of "women's group" fiction, and those four Graces got to mix a lot of fun with their concerns, wrinkles and cancer. They quarrel, make up and understand each other's failings and gifts. Gaffney has a blunt and convincing insight into her characters, particularly the women. She doesn't let Dash off lightly on her journey back to Andrew, and the tone of this novel is darker than "The Saving Graces."
Our heroine isn't having much fun. Dash has a bad habit of lashing out at those who don't live up to her expectations. She yells at Chloe, telling her that she's "impractical, impulsive, unwise and immature." She alienates her nearests and dearests, only to repent and overwhelm them with tearful apologies. "I've been unkind, tactless and a bully," Dash realizes after trying to talk her assistant, Greta, out of marrying her boyfriend. However, she still concludes, "I'm right. I see it so clearly. Why can't she?"
It is easy to get exasperated with Dash. She changes her mind at the cheep of a cellphone; she lectures her friends and family; she dissolves into tears at the thought of both infidelity and reconciliation. Some of her interior dialogue reads like a psychology textbook. Yet, Gaffney's men are no match for her women. Both Andrew and Owen are one-dimensional -- although ghostly cheers may well be heard from readers when Andrew's fist connects unequivocally with Owen's chin -- action at last!
However, there isn't a phony bone in Dash's body, and we definitely want to hang around to see how the pieces finally end up on the matrimonial chessboard.