IN Dale Loves Sophie to Death, Robb Forman Dew's first novel, there is no character named Dale, and none named Sophie; no one dies, and the several types of love that make up an important part of the book's subject do not include the glandular, melodramatic emotion suggested by the book's title. The love Robb Dew reveals for us is the love with which we are most familiar, family love, in all its ambiguity, pain and quiet pleasure. It is a difficult subject for a novel, because familial love is not as vivid as first love or adulterous love or homosexual love -- or as loving someone to death -- but Dew, with the force of a considerable intelligence, has shaped a novel that profoundly satisfies both the mind and the heart.
Two-thirds of Dale Loves Sophie to Death is focused through the sensibility of Dinah Howells, who, along with her three children, is spending the summer of her 36th year in Enfield, Ohio, the town where she grew up and where her divorced parents still live. Her husband, Martin, with whom the rest of the narration is associated, stays home in the Berkshires college town where he teaches. They have separated this way for the last eight years, because Martin has summer classes and editorial duties with a small magazine, and Dinah feels the need, although she's not sure why, to return with her children to the scene of her childhood.
Dew offers little in the way of plot, and what action there is -- Martin has a casual affair, Dinah considers having one with the first boy she ever loved -- the author steadfastly refuses to exploit for the reader's titillation or thirst for drama. Instead, each external action, each tiny chunk of plot, exists in order to illuminate an internal reaction -- an idea, a perception, a revelation. For example, here is the most explicit sexual scene in the book; it takes place in the brilliant final chapter after Dinah and Martin are reunited:
"But later, when they finally settled themselves in the same bed, they were made easier by their instinctive inclination to turn toward the other. Each one had expected that the other would be too tired to make love. In fact, they made love with a gentle and slow pleasure, because their energy was not great. Their passion was not ragged or insistent, and Dinah was glad that her body was allowing her this great enjoyment; she wasn't hindered by vanity and self-evaluation; she was not being judged. The two of them were always reliable, so that they lay in bed after making love, satisfied and no longer needful in any way, for the time being. Dinah was thinking that sex can be the sweetest, kindest way to overcome reticence. They both felt at ease at last, and in the morning they were fond and affectionate with each other and with the children. Their physical isolation from the other had made them forget how to be familiar, and now they remembered."
Dew is too disciplined a writer to yield to the temptation to give us sex for sex's sake. Even that great engine of human motivation, and therefore of fiction, must be governed by its dramatic or thematic function in a novel.
So Dale Loves Sophie to Death takes place largely in the consciousness of Dinah and Martin, and therefore has a very slow pace. What kept me from getting bored, what pulled me along, was the fineness of perception, the liveliness of intelligence of her main characters, and such insight as this: "Martin . . . had no idea that there was beginning in his wife that subtle reliance on style rather than substance that gives to some women in their thirties and forties a particular grace."
Dew's gift is to transform the ordinary, to charge it with interest. Dinah's middle child, Toby, gets sick. Because he has been difficult all summer, Dinah doesn't immediately recognize his illness, and by the time she does, it is necessary to hospitalize him briefly. He is never seriously ill, and yet his sickness becomes the climactic event in the book. It is Toby's birthday, and he has been promised a phone call to his father. When he gets his chance, he is irritatingly reticient; we believe, with Dinah, that he is just being spoiled. Suddenly, Toby says, "Dad, are you going to come out here? . . . Dad, I think I might be dying. I think I'm going to die.' . . . Toby's face was entirely wet, though he made no sound of crying. 'I'm so sick. I want you to come out here.'" Appearing as it does against the beige background of the rest of the novel, it is a jolting, moving scene. It is also a flawlessly constructed climax, carefully prepared for throughout the early parts of the book, and precipitating all that follows.
This climax also seems remarkable to me because it gives a child such a serious role. Dew takes children seriously, but she is never sentimental about them. They are "not always lovable," and Dinah is often cross with them.
Nor does she sentimentalize family life in general. Dinah is often unfair to Martin; her parents are odd and difficult (and extraordinarily interesting minor characters); her brother, Buddy, who also lives in Enfield, tends to be indifferent to the memories of their childhoods that Dinah often dwells upon.
"Dale Loves Sophie to Death" is a graffito on a railroad bridge the Howells drive beneath as they approach Enfield at the novel's opening. Martin gently makes fun of the sign, and Dinah jumps him for it, saying he could never understand the kind of emotion embodied in that message. She defends the adolescent because, as she discovers, it is to extend her own adolescence that she returns each year to Enfield. What Dinah realizes, simply and awfully, is that she is grown up, "and because she was a grownup she had had to contend with a terrible fate -- she had mortal children, and she had to recognize it and deal with it every moment of her days." Back home, Martin has wrestled with his own mortality, is almost paralyzed with the realization of it. At summer's end, as the Howells drive out of Enfield for home, Martin realizes that his "ultimate comfort was the adhesive intricacy of this domestic life." When they pass back under the railroad bridge, the sign, if they had bothered to turn their heads and look back at it, would have a different meaning, one they could agree on, as they did the day they married. They would love each other to death, as in "till death us do part."
I've gone back to this book several times since I first read it. It has grown richer each time. Dale Loves Sophie to Death deserves to be among those few novels published this year that will be read again in other years.