By Jonathan Yardley
Saturday, October 25, 2008
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
As originally conceived, today's sermon was to begin along these lines: A first novel is a fragile and vulnerable thing, to be treated with immense kindness because of the stark contrast between the high hopes the author has invested in it and the slender accomplishment the author has pulled off. Then I decided to prowl through my bookshelves, and after a few minutes the first word that passed my lips was: Whoa!
The startling truth is that a considerable number of writers have burst out of the starting gate at full speed. Here are just a few of the first-novel titles I found: "The House of the Spirits," by Isabel Allende; "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," by Michael Chabon; "Mrs. Bridge," by Evan S. Connell; "A Fan's Notes," by Frederick Exley; "The Painted Bird," by Jerzy Kosinski; "The Golden Gate," by Vikram Seth. . . .
And "Dale Loves Sophie to Death," by Robb Forman Dew. This last is under consideration here, but taken as a whole that's quite a list, and it could be a lot longer had I not whittled it down to books I especially care about. To be sure, not many readers now know some of the other first novels on my shelf -- William Boyd ("A Good Man in Africa"), Don Carpenter ("Hard Rain Falling") and Lynn Freed ("Home Ground") -- either, but take my word for it: They're absolutely first-rate and deserve a much wider readership, though that will be difficult to pull off as only the Boyd is now in print in this country. The Dew, fortunately, also is in print, no small distinction when one considers it was published 27 years ago; presumably this is explained by the modest but intensely loyal following the author has won for this and her six other books, which include a memoir and a book of Thanksgiving recipes, and the National Book Award for First Novel she won in 1982.
"Dale Loves Sophie to Death" was published in April 1981. It was one of the last books I reviewed in my capacity as book editor of the Washington Star before it ceased publication three months later. I knew absolutely nothing about the author, and thus came to the novel not merely without preconceptions but also without unduly high expectations.
What I found surprised and pleased me, and on second reading it pleases me even more. Its subject is domestic life, which always interests me strongly, but the skill, subtlety and sensitivity with which Dew treats it are what really matter. She was in her mid-30s when the novel appeared but clearly was a person of precocious maturity, for in no way does "Dale Loves Sophie to Death" display the callowness or authorial self-infatuation with which so many first novels are afflicted.
Dew, closer examination revealed, comes from a distinguished literary background. Her grandfather was John Crowe Ransom, the distinguished Southern poet and critic who was a prominent member of the Fugitive literary group and the agrarian movement, and her godfather was another Fugitive, Robert Penn Warren, the celebrated poet, critic and novelist, the author of "All the King's Men." She was born in Ohio in 1946 but grew up in Louisiana. She is married to Charles Dew, a professor of history at Williams College, and has two grown sons.
Her experiences as wife and mother clearly informed the writing of "Dale Loves Sophie to Death," but there is no reason to assume it is more than incidentally autobiographical. Dinah and Martin Howells live in western Massachusetts, as do Robb and Charles Dew; he, too, teaches at a small liberal arts college; Dinah and Martin have young children (three, in their case), as did the Dews at the time the novel was written. Yet one reason the novel doesn't feel autobiographical to me is that Dinah, the central character, is not an easy person to like, and first novelists are far more likely to build their work around sympathetic protagonists who are stand-ins for themselves.
The story takes places over the course of several weeks during a summer -- sometime during the 1970s -- when, as is her custom, Dinah has taken the children to her home town in rural Ohio. Martin drives them out there but flies back to Massachusetts after two weeks, leaving them to relax in a familiar place with familiar people, including Dinah's mother and father, who are divorced but far from estranged. Dinah and Martin "parted mute with bewildered misery, feeling at once that they were being forced apart, and yet each anxious to be away from the other." These sensations will be familiar, I think, to most people who have had long, essentially happy marriages, for after many years together the need to be apart for a while becomes almost as strong as the need to be together, one of the many complex truths about domesticity that Dew understands and describes clearly.
In my review of "Dale Loves Sophie to Death," I said that Dew writes about children with uncommon sensitivity and understanding, a judgment that if anything is even stronger after re-reading the book. By and large, novelists aren't interested in children under the age of 12; they usually are blurs in the background, put there to establish that what we have here is a family but of no importance in and of themselves. By contrast these three children -- David, who is 10 years old; Toby, who turns 8 during the summer; and Sarah, who is 4 -- are real people, not miniature grown-ups but proper, and sometimes improper, children, ones whom any parent immediately will recognize as real and believable.
Dew is equally accomplished at portraying her secondary characters. Dinah's mother is a smart, skilled interior designer who can't scramble an egg and from time to time comes out with infelicitous remarks. Her father, a psychiatrist, is tall, erect and distant, seemingly uninterested in his children and grandchildren yet, as the story unfolds, unexpectedly if clumsily caring. Her brother, several years older than she, is good with the grandchildren but impatient (with ample reason) with his sister's tendency toward self-pity and self-preoccupation. Old and close friends, in Massachusetts and Ohio, are much more than mere props; they are interesting, generally likable, and they bring out aspects of Dinah and Martin that are revealing, if not always flattering.
Dinah, though, is a piece of work, simultaneously endearing and maddening. She is an inveterate worrier and an occasional meddler. At one point her father has had it up to here and barks: ". . . by God, Dinah, having you worry about us all the time is hard as hell on the rest of us! I just wish you wouldn't expect so much. It's just going to make you tired in the end." She becomes obsessed with the idea that family and friends owe her apologies for various discontents of her youth. Finally her childhood best friend says, "You've always known that it's much better to be more sinned against than sinning," and Dinah is left "with the unwelcome knowledge that it was absolutely true that for a long time she had made a great virtue out of being wronged," a most unattractive character trait that is not easily shed. Yet maddening though she can be, she has, as the saying goes, a good heart:
"Dinah kept going -- she got by, day to day -- on a belief in her own decency. In general, she had very little hope of anything; she was not an optimist, and hope would have been foreign to her nature. In fact, hope would have indicated a certain sort of faith in something -- even simply in the nature of the universe -- that she had given up even considering. She was not as nice, certainly, as she meant to be; she didn't believe that anyone was. But she was determined to believe in people's intentions of decency and kindness. She was also aware that because of that belief she was probably circumstantially naive. But at least she didn't extend to herself the easy charity she extended to everyone else, and she was particularly contemptuous of that small remnant of childishness that often led her into pursuing revenge."
That "small remnant of childishness," though, in one form or another is something that all of us carry into adulthood. Dinah is "baffled by the transition from child to adult -- almost from victim to victor -- and she wanted to understand and see a clear picture of how she had moved from her past to her present," but of course no clear picture is available because the transition is ongoing. When one refers to one's "inner child" it usually is in a self-deprecating fashion, but the truth is the child is always present in the adult, and there is no absolute line of demarcation between the two.
How refreshing it is, though, to read a novel in which relationships between children and adults are as important as relationships between adults. The tensions between Dinah and Martin, as well as the "profound connection" between them, certainly are central to "Dale Loves Sophie to Death," but so, too, are the tensions and connections between the parents and their children, especially those between Dinah and Toby: "When she thought of Toby, she sometimes imagined that she and he were like television lovers, running toward each other across a great, grassy distance, their arms open wide in expectation. Dinah wondered if the two of them were charted just enough off-course so that they were destined to hurtle past each other, heavy with love and good intentions, but inevitably missing their target."
That lovely phrase, "heavy with love," aptly describes this novel. The title, "Dale Loves Sophie to Death," is taken from a declaration of love "emblazoned" on a railway bridge that the Howells family passes under each year it drives to Ohio, a sign that convinces the children "that they were indeed close to home." Home being where the love is, the deeper meaning of the sign becomes gratifyingly clear.
"Dale Loves Sophie to Death" is available in a Back Bay paperback ($13.95).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.