“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx
I finished the last page with a satisfied smile. Too bad it was a library book. I wanted a copy for myself, to treasure and read again knowing that I will gasp at the poetry of everyday life, weather, dogs, and marriage.
Suzanne Berne’s The Dogs of Littlefield is one of the best books that I have ever read. I loved every moment of it, the powerful joy of settling at the feet of an exceptional, deft storyteller who conjured alternative realities, characterized with searing phrase, and told a fascinating, twisty story about perfect appearances barely covering roiling passion, acute pain, and existential angst. I was reading a current day Virginia Woolf, a Mrs. Dalloway struggling in upper middle-class suburbia struggling to resolve the gap between what she wants and what she has settled for in her current life. Whereas writers such as Tolstoy and Mrs. Gaskell have killed their conflicted heroines, Berne’s Margaret sits in her backyard, anticipating the conversation that will change her life. The reader is left to finish the story.
I was surprised that I enjoyed the book this much. A trusted reader recommended it to me which outbalanced an unreliable avalanche of plaudits and praise (Berne’s debut novel A Crime in the Neighborhood won the Orange Prize for the best original full-length novel written in English in 1999.). I borrowed it from the library when the first line grabbed my attention: “No one was very surprised when the signs started appearing in Baldwin Park.” (The dogs on the pretty yellow cover also helped.)
I started reading it when I got home. Dinner was late. For several days, that book was with me wherever I went. Now that I’d gotten to the end, I wanted the book to be with me forever.
When the local bookstore did not have a copy and I didn’t want to put in a special order, I went on-line. There, I was shocked at near-universal condemnation of the book reviews. At amazon, the book hovers around a 2.7 while Goodreads is 2.91. I don’t usually read much below a 4 — what was going on?
I had to know more. I read the damning reviews. I read the several glowing ones. Ah, finally the mystery resolved itself from snarling junkyard mutt into a different beast resembling three-headed Cerberus.
If the book failed to meet the stringent expectation, it was damned. Readers raged: it wasn’t a mystery! the characters are boring and there are too many of them! the pace was too slow and not enough happens in the plot (and you can’t make a movie out of that)! these people don’t have real problems and they should be happy with what they have and they’re not and this is what is wrong with the world and writers and books today! it wasn’t about dogs so why were there dogs on the cover! why didn’t the writer tell a story about someone that I can relate to! Others blared: boring, couldn’t finish it, hated the ending, made me feel depressed about life.
Did we read the same book?
Readers who enjoyed The Dogs of Littlefield praised high-quality writing, complex relationships, deft characterization, and vivid depiction of drama, comedy, and tragedy in a small suburban town in New England.
Whew! That was the book that I read.
Reviews of books, whether by professional book reviewers or amateurs, reveal more about the reviewer than the work itself. If a novel is the story that the writer shares, a book review is the story that the reader shares back.
Read for yourself. You might do well to begin with The Dogs of Littlefield.