Shouldn’t a town that’s No. 6 on the Wall Street Journal’s list of Twenty Best Places to Live in America be idyllic? Then why is fictional Littlefield, Mass., the setting of Orange Prize-winner Suzanne Berne’s fourth novel, crime- and angst-ridden? Lucky for us, much is roiling under its leafy trees, inside its fine public schools and Victorian houses, home to 1,146 psychotherapists and 679 psychiatrists. Yet someone is poisoning the town’s dogs, a crime very likely prompted by an off-leash proposal that is dividing the village’s pro- and anti-dog forces.
Taking notes on a sampling of the population is sociocultural anthropologist Clarice Watkins, who had received “high praise, and tenure, for her study of the effects of global destabilization on urban matriarchal structures, based on her fieldwork” in Detroit and Mexico City. “A small, portly black woman in an orange turban,” she pops up to eavesdrop and analyze, arriving as dogs are dying. Conveniently, next door lives Margaret Downing, unhappy wife to investment planner Bill, who feels increasingly allergic to the wife he once found fetching.
Berne artfully portrays Margaret as a pill, but a sympathetic one, “apprehensive, fretful . . . overly sensitive.” She is a former teacher, now housewife and mom, whose middle-schooler, Julia, “her sad skinny child,” is a full-time worry. Her marriage is getting away from her, despite weekly counseling sessions. And isn’t Bill admiring his daughter’s friend, Hannah, with “skin so pure, eyes so clear”?
Not unrelated to the marital atrophy is Margaret’s attraction to local author George Wechsler, whose bull mastiff, Feldman, is the first dog down, discovered by Margaret while walking her boisterous black lab, Binx, through Baldwin Park. Like Margaret, Wechsler is lonely — even if spotted with a blonde in biking shorts/Spandex top/no bra. He is recently separated from his wife, Tina, and his book isn’t selling well. Tina has moved back in with her mother, the imperious Mrs. Beale, a voice for the anti-off-leashers. (“Let me ask you, do dogs pay taxes?”)
Tina as houseguest is unpredictable. “Bottles of chardonnay crowded the refrigerator door where Mrs. Beale liked to keep her Lactaid milk.”
Berne manages a narrative that is two-pronged: She is the true observer, the omniscient eyes and ears of the book. Then, to fine comic effect, there is the jargon-y pondering of Dr. Watkins, who gets the town mostly wrong, judging it through a pedantic sociological lens. Choosing Margaret as the face of Littlefield, the professor sums up her subject’s problems as the “ennui of a loveless marriage . . . elaborate seasonal decorations . . . blond salon highlights, yoga classes, skin coddled daily with serums and moisturizers that cost as much as the yearly income of a bean farmer in Rajasthan — all adding up to the worst kind of social blight: the completely self-absorbed human being” — delicious thesis-speak, in just the right doses.
Also just right is a tour de force of a book group night featuring Wechsler and his novel, “Pitch Zone,” about a blind yeshiva student who dreams of being the Yankees’ designated hitter. The evening could be plucked from these pages and put in a 21st-century time capsule to represent “a busy woman drinking wine on an evening out, freed from kitchen tyranny and from helping with homework, enjoying the brief luxury of feeling fortunate.”
“The Dogs of Littlefield” is character-driven but not at a breakneck speed. The writing couldn’t be better or smarter, even if the story is missing adrenaline. The canine murders, all told, are a way in, a comedy of manners with a dabbling in whodunit. Berne has an eye for flora and fauna that can feel unduly arty. For those less rewarded by sentences such as “Pink cloud bergs drifted above them in the still-blue sky” or an authorial tic of naming as many colors as possible on one page, they might feel like reaches.
But having said that, her descriptions of all things human and emotional are spot on, witty and so very smart. The working title of Dr. Watkins’s never-to-be monograph is “Never Enough: Toward a Sociocultural Theory of Trained Incapacity and Discontent in an American Middle-Class Village and the Effects of Global Destabilization on Conceptualizations of Good Quality of Life.”
What a good job Berne has done, making the grandiose funny. Margaret’s toast at a wonderfully awkward Christmas dinner, “To all of our troubles,” leads Dr. Watkins to wonder why she, usually embedded in traumatized places, has chosen to study the indulged and unhappy of Littlefield. Her findings are problematic. Instead of the as-advertised equilibrium, “she had stumbled onto the most unbalanced people of all: they were afraid of everything.”
Elinor Lipman is the author of 10 novels, most recently “The View From Penthouse B.”
By Suzanne Berne
Simon & Schuster. 273 pp. $25