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Robb Forman Dew, novelist who charted daily life’s shifting emotions, dies at 73

A 1980 portrait of author Robb Forman Dew. (Family Photo/Little, Brown)

Robb Forman Dew, a novelist who explored domestic life and the fragile ties between parents, children, husbands and wives, notably in her prizewinning debut, “Dale Loves Sophie to Death,” and her trilogy about Washburn, a fictional town “of no particular consequence,” died May 22 at a hospital in Springfield, Mass. She was 73.

The cause was complications from endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart’s inner lining, said her son Steve Dew.

Mrs. Dew emerged in the early 1980s as part of a group of prominent female novelists that included her friends Louise Erdrich, Anne Tyler and Nancy Thayer, a onetime neighbor in Williamstown, Mass. A master at breathing life into flawed and complex characters, she had what New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani called “a special gift for charting the subtle tidal flow of emotions that make up daily life.”

She was 34 when she published “Dale Loves Sophie to Death” (1981), which won the American Book Award, now known as the National Book Award, for a first novel. Named for real-life graffiti that the book’s protagonists see scrawled on a railway bridge, the novel centered on a mother of three who returns to her Ohio hometown while her husband is away for the summer.

Mrs. Dew returned to familial themes in “The Time of Her Life” (1984), a darker examination of ordinary life in the Midwest, where her characters have a sense that “there was always something afoot, afloat, in motion.” Tasks like making a cheese sandwich, building a stereo set and helping a child with her panda pajamas are shadowed by melancholy and the occasional drunken shouts of Avery Parks, whose marriage is unraveling.

“Mrs. Dew can convey, with a skill matched by few writers today, the quick, peculiar shifts in feelings that we experience, moment to moment, day by day — how, in an instant, love can sour into irritation; anxiety dissolve into affection, attraction subside into nostalgia,” Kakutani wrote in a review.

In interviews, Mrs. Dew said her books were not exactly autobiographical, although she drew on her own life, family and tumultuous childhood. “What I understood with the deepest part of my compassion and with an abiding sense of irony,” she once told Publishers Weekly, “was the unconscious harm people can do to each other, with the best of intentions.”

Her early years were spent in the company of storytellers and writers. Her father, who harbored frustrated literary ambitions, instead became a neurosurgeon, and her mother was a card-playing raconteur; her maternal grandfather was poet and literary scholar John Crowe Ransom, the founder of a band of Southern writers known as the Fugitives, and her godfather was Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet Robert Penn Warren.

Although she was an Ohio native, Mrs. Dew spent much of her childhood in Louisiana and called herself “deeply, gratefully and inescapably Southern.” Her husband, historian Charles B. Dew, is a Williams College professor and a scholar of the South and the Civil War, and Mrs. Dew ultimately turned to history for her own work.

Beginning with “The Evidence Against Her” (2001), about three children born on the same day in 1888, she chronicled life in Washburn, Ohio, following her characters into the middle of the 20th century in “The Truth of the Matter” (2005) and “Being Polite to Hitler” (2011).

“The profound and the mundane are joined at the hip,” Mrs. Dew wrote in the last volume, “and each one is dependent upon the human ability to recognize the other.” (The series received mixed reviews, with some critics pining for a return to Mrs. Dew’s contemporary work; novelist Meg Wolitzer, an admirer, wrote in a Times review that “Being Polite to Hitler” “is a deeply knowing novel — progressive, certainly, and at times quietly, thrillingly, strange.”)

In a phone interview, Mrs. Dew’s son Steve recalled “some battles with the publisher” over the “Hitler” title, which took its name from an accusation that one character slings at her husband during an argument about the Rosenberg spy case. “But she was very insistent about it,” Steve Dew said. “She didn’t like the idea of being pigeonholed as a cozy purveyor of domestic fiction. And I think in her mind that title was a response or a reaction to that — she actually wanted to be a bit provocative.”

Mrs. Dew, he added, “was very, very adamant about the fact that women writers didn’t get their due. She always thought of herself and her peers as just as good as a John Cheever or a John Updike.”

The older of two children, Robb Reavill Forman was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on Oct. 26, 1946. Nicknamed Lambchop as an infant and known by relatives as Chop, she grew up in Baton Rouge, La., but frequently visited her maternal grandfather in Gambier, Ohio, where he taught at Kenyon College and offered his home to Robb while her parents fought (and eventually divorced) back home.

She studied at Louisiana State University, left before receiving a degree and soon met Dew, the historian, whom she married in 1968. By her early 30s, she was writing stories for literary magazines such as the Southern Review, clacking away at an Olivetti typewriter before and after lunch.

“My early writing was shrouded beneath a kind of faux, gothic, Southern sensibility,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay. “In fact, I can’t remember if — early-on — I ever wrote a single thing that didn’t mention either maggots, Spanish moss, water moccasins, the Mississippi River, or Siamese cats who came to a bad end. I still don’t know what the cats were about; there’s nothing particularly Southern about the company of cats.”

Mrs. Dew eventually gave up writing about the South, deciding that she never entirely understood the region, and transported her characters to the Midwest. Her other books included the novel “Fortunate Lives” (1992), a sequel to “Dale,” and “A Southern Thanksgiving” (1992), a cookbook. Her recipe for cornbread advised home chefs to “stir rather desultorily” and concluded with the suggestion that the hot bread be stored in “a cupboard or a cool oven” if the cook has cats in their home.

She also taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and wrote the memoir “The Family Heart” (1994), about her and her husband’s reaction to Steve’s coming out as gay. The LGBTQ-oriented Lambda Book Report called it “a painfully detailed account” that “should be of help to many parents who are equally unprepared.”

“It was really a very honest and sometimes self-reproaching record of her own behavior at that time,” Steve Dew said. “Post coming-out, their reaction was so loving, but they were also trying to feel their way through all of the prejudices, the terrible things that they’d heard through the years, the bigotry, the hatefulness.”

In addition to her son, of Williamstown, survivors include her husband of 52 years, also of Williamstown; another son, John Dew of Troy, N.Y.; and a sister.

Mrs. Dew never stopped writing and was at work on a memoir when she died.

“Eventually some sort of peculiar guilt sets in if I’m not writing,” she said in an interview for the book “Novel Ideas,” by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman. “Which is strange, because there isn’t anyone expecting anything from me. But writing is what I can do, and I guess everyone needs to be occupied. And then I feel a kind of yearning for the complications of developing a whole world. The discoveries. The high! I really want to get back to my people.”

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