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Robb Forman Dew, whose books explored the ’tidal flow of emotions’ in families, dies at 73

Ms. Dew “scrutinized the intricacies of family life with meticulous intelligence and plain-spoken lyricism,” one critic wrote.
Ms. Dew “scrutinized the intricacies of family life with meticulous intelligence and plain-spoken lyricism,” one critic wrote.

In Robb Forman Dew’s first book, a young mother returns from Massachusetts to her Ohio hometown for an annual summer visit, and in the author’s telling, ordinary moments become memorable and lasting.

“Dale Loves Sophie to Death,” which won the American Book Award for first novel in 1982, was “a precocious debut,” book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, and one that “established Mrs. Dew as a writer with a special gift for charting the subtle tidal flow of emotions that make up daily life.”

Mrs. Dew, who navigated those currents of feelings in novels and a memoir, died Friday in Baystate Medical Center in Springfield of a heart ailment. She was 73 and had lived in Williamstown.

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Her first novel took its title from a straightforward declaration of affection scrawled on a bridge the family passes while traveling from Massachusetts to Ohio. The love among the book’s characters was far more complex.

Early in the novel, Dinah arrives in Ohio with her three children. Visiting her childhood home, she notices her mother “in an attitude of complete indifference to her surroundings” — leaning against a counter, smoking a cigarette.

“Dinah had come across her mother thus transfixed so often that she no longer perceived it as a mystery,” Mrs. Dew wrote. “She watched her for a moment in admiration, however, because, caught in the dusky light, her mother — worn out, with her flesh drawn and lined and the skin at her jaw beginning to hang a trifle loosely from the bone — was lovelier than she had been when she was younger. The bare bones of her mother were coming to light, and Dinah thought that Polly was the only woman she knew who could combine a certain brittleness with an air of languid grace.”

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Mrs. Dew’s “command of language sometimes just floored me,” said her husband, Charles Burgess Dew, the Ephraim Williams professor of American history at Williams College. “She had a passion for crafting sentences that were elegant and expressive.”

In her novels, she “scrutinized the intricacies of family life with meticulous intelligence and plain-spoken lyricism,” Wendy Smith wrote in the Times, in 2005.

“My mother had a wry view of the world and a very, very sharp one,” said her son Charles Stephen Dew of Williamstown, who goes by his middle name. “And it has definitely inspired me and my brother in our work, and how we maneuver through the world.”

With a 1994 memoir, Mrs. Dew took as her subject her own family. “The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out” recounts what happened when Steve told her he was gay.

The book “is less about her son's revelation of his homosexuality than about the mighty weight of parents’ expectations,” Renee Graham wrote in a Globe review. “It is a touchingly written account of a family coming to terms not only with their son’s sexuality, but with their own unspoken prejudices, and the realities that peacefully lay some of their dreams to rest.”

Mrs. Dew’s husband said the memoir, which was translated into multiple languages, drew worldwide responses from parents and their gay and lesbian children. “That book, I think, has helped an awful lot of people,” he said.

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“I will speak for myself when I say I think I got my sense of justice from my mother,” said Steve Dew, who is a lawyer, as is his brother, John Forman Dew of Troy, N.Y.

“She was a champion of the underdog to say the least,” Steve added. “She really admired people who were kind, who were empathetic, who were generous. She had very little patience for people who were cruel or abused their power.”

The older of two daughters, Robb Reavill Forman was born in 1946 in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

Her father, Dr. Oliver Duane Forman, was a neurosurgeon. Her mother, Helen Elizabeth Ransom, was the daughter of writer and professor John Crowe Ransom, who taught at Kenyon College in Ohio and was the first editor of the Kenyon Review. Mrs. Dew’s godfather was the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren.

Though she often spent summer vacations in Ohio, Mrs. Dew grew up in Baton Rouge, La.

The challenges of families and the complexities of love — subjects she illuminated in her books — were apparent in her childhood.

“My mother and father were fascinating and quite brilliant. They really weren’t happy, married to each other,” she told Terry Gross in a 1994 “Fresh Air” interview on NPR.

“I loved both of my parents and both of my parents loved me,” Mrs. Dew added. “I wanted them to love each other, and I think they sort of did, but they also sort of didn’t.”

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A love of books and writing wasn’t confined to her grandfather and godfather.

“Both of my parents had writerly aspirations,” Mrs. Dew wrote in a 2005 essay for the writer Maud Newton’s blog. “My mother was a fine poet who lost interest in writing poetry. My father’s first ambition had been to become a journalist.”

Mrs. Dew added that as a fiction writer, she needed to leave the South behind — along with the bigotry and anger she had witnessed — to find her voice. She wrote in the blog that “it’s only been by relocating my characters from their Southern setting, with all of its deep mysteries, that I’ve gotten to the root of what I am drawn to investigate.”

She attended Louisiana State University, left before graduating, and married Charles Burgess Dew in 1968. They lived in Columbia, Mo., before settling in Williamstown in the late 1970s.

Her other novels include a trilogy: "The Evidence Against Her” (2001), “The Truth of the Matter” (2005), and “Being Polite to Hitler” (2011), all set in the fictional Ohio town of Washburn.

In a 2011 Times review, Meg Wolitzer praised the trilogy’s conclusion as “a deeply knowing novel — progressive, certainly, and at times quietly, thrillingly strange.”

Along with her memoir, Mrs. Dew published a popular cookbook, “A Southern Thanksgiving: Recipes and Musings for a Manageable Feast” (1992).

For Mrs. Dew, holidays were times to also celebrate and decorate. “Once in the 1970s we had five Christmas trees in the house,” Steve recalled.

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A service will be announced for Mrs. Dew, who in addition to her husband and two sons leaves her sister, Elizabeth Ransom Forman of Gambier, Ohio.

In “Fortunate Lives,” a 2009 sequel to “Dale Loves Sophie to Death,” Mrs. Dew has her character Dinah take measure of “that moment of the late summer afternoon that is suspended on the verge of twilight. Mourning doves bobbed and fluttered on the telephone lines along the street, sobbing into the deep light; the hearty spears of brilliant gladiolas and the soft purple phlox glowed vibrantly among the thin-petaled, palely drooping day lilies, until it seemed that the taller flowers, spiking into the dimming afternoon, were themselves a source of illumination.”

Her husband recalled that they read one another’s works-in-progress, each offering suggestions.

“She was the best reader-editor I ever had,” he said, adding that when his wife had trouble with passages she was writing, “she would just bring them to the dinner table,” where they discussed the difficulties as she reworked her prose.

“It was just amazing to watch the way she puts words together,” he said. “I was in awe of her ability.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.