THE DOGS OF LITTLEFIELD. By Suzanne Berne. Simon & Schuster. 273 pages. $25.
What it’s like to live in one of the “Best Towns” in the country? Are your neighbors friendlier, your schools smarter, your gardens prettier?
Charlestonians are familiar with their town being dubbed one of the best, and we understand that visitors have high expectations of our city. This classification, while desirable, has its downside. We can’t be perfect all the time.
In her latest novel, Orange Prize-winning author Suzanne Berne has created the fictional town of Littlefield, Mass., dubbed one of the “Ten Best Places to Live in America” by the Wall Street Journal because of its natural beauty, excellent schools and general quality of life. The town draws the attention of sociocultural anthropologist Dr. Watkins who takes a sabbatical to move to Littlefield and study what determines a “good quality of life.”
The book opens with a poisoned dog. Margaret, a dog owner and bored suburban housewife, discovers the animal while out walking her own large and unruly black Lab Binx in the local park. Littlefield is a dog-friendly town, but recently the townspeople have been split over a proposal to let the dogs run off leash during certain hours. Anti-dog signs appear throughout the town telling owners to “leash your beast,” but no one knows the source. First, one dog is poisoned and then another, and the polished veneer quickly starts to tarnish.
Dr. Watkins fears that her studies are in vain. In an email to her colleague, she writes, “I am afraid ... that the population, which I was counting on to be contented, is instead becoming frightened.”
This is not a whodunnit mystery for animal lovers. The dying dogs are merely a tool the author uses to dig deeper into the lives of her characters. Margaret’s marriage is in trouble. She finds herself drawn to a local author whose dog is the first to die. George is recently divorced, lonely and struggling to finish his second book.
Their lust, hot in the car one evening, is awkward in daylight. As they lay next to each other in bed, George’s previously mute character find his voice and speaks to him: “Sex in middle age is like making a matzo ball, it requires a sensitive touch. Too much handling and it turns to lead.” He struggles to resist the urge to jump out of bed to write, and instead focuses on a mole on Margaret’s neck.
Margaret’s husband, Bill, is mostly clueless about her affair and wonders if he’s dead and just doesn’t know it. Spotted one evening by Dr. Watkins out walking her dog, Bill is described as having a look of “monstrous suffering. ... A look of wooden self-consciousness, fraudulence, vacancy, a kind of flat-line anguish that was almost frightening.”
This fear of feeling disconnected and alone strikes at our deepest core. Berne illustrates middle-age malcontent through the mishaps of Margaret, George and Bill who worry that “life is just something to get through.”
Littlefield is not a perfect town. There are no perfect towns. Dig past the surface and you’ll always find the ugly underbelly. But this is not a dark novel. What Berne does best, with humor and insight, is expose this darkness inside us all. Pulling back the layers of Littlefield’s townspeople, she reminds us that it’s our imperfections that make us whole and human.
As Margaret plays the piano at the middle school end-of-year concert, parents sit poised in their seats, quieted by the voices of their children and the humbling realization that “this moment will never come again.”
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a writer in Charleston.