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Mameve Medwed, novelist with an ‘irrepressible sense of humor,’ dies at 79

Novelist Mameve Medwed photographed in the third floor study of her Cambridge home. Medwed, whose seven witty novels included “Mail” and “How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life,” died Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The seeds for Mameve Medwed’s novels often sprouted from a snatch of overheard conversation.

“If it stays with me, then my mind starts,” she told the Globe in 2015.

“Almost every writer is just an eavesdropper,” she added. “I’ll be out for dinner with someone, I’ll be listening to the people at the next table, and I’ll suddenly go into a kind of zone.”

Ms. Medwed, a critic and essayist whose seven witty novels included “Mail” and “How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life,” died Sunday in the Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln of metastatic lung cancer.

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She was 79 and had lived for many years in Cambridge, the home to many of her fictional characters.

“This is a novel as delicious as its title, and a wonderful antidote if you’re slightly depressed, searching for something to sink into on a snowy day or, like its heroine, have been in sweats since Friday night and it is now Sunday afternoon,” Globe critic Roberta Silman wrote in 2006 of “How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life.”

Silman cautioned that readers shouldn’t “be deceived by Medwed’s light touch and irrepressible sense of humor,” and the author herself extended that advice to all writers whose work makes people smile.

“I would love to make a little campaign for the comic novel, because I always feel that people who write funny stuff are considered sort of, you know, light — l-i-t-e — and are relegated to the children’s table,” she said in the 2015 interview. “All of us who write comedy deal with the same stuff that the deep, heavy, dark people staring in the abyss deal with: love, friendship, death, sorrow, all those things. We just look at it in a skewed way.”

Born in Bangor, Maine, on Dec. 9, 1942, Mameve Stern was sometimes dubbed “Bangor’s other novelist” — as in, the one who isn’t Stephen King.

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Her characters sometimes dwelled in her home state, and Ms. Medwed’s life in those years provided rich material for her autobiographical essays, some of which were published in the Globe.

In 2011, she wrote a eulogy of sorts for the planned closing of The Coffee Pot, a famous Bangor sandwich shop.

“Proust may have had his madeleine, but we had that shop’s signature submarine sandwich — so signature the sandwich became known simply as a coffee pot,” she wrote in the Globe.

Ms. Medwed “was in person precisely who she was on the page,” said Stacy Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of “Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),” and a longtime friend. “She was immeasurably modest, just so unfailingly charming and generous.”

“My mom was like her writing – beautiful and elegant and larger than life,” said Ms. Medwed’s son Daniel, who lives in Cambridge.

Ms. Medwed’s husband, Howard Medwed, died in 2019.

In addition to Daniel, she leaves her other son, Jonathan of New York City; her sister, Robie Rogge of New York City; and four grandchildren.

A memorial gathering to celebrate Ms. Medwed’s life and work will be announced.

Though known and praised for the humor that weaves its way into nearly everything she wrote, Ms. Medwed, who taught writing for many years at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, insisted that wasn’t the plan each time she begins.

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“When I set out to write, I’m very serious, not planning on being funny, and it just comes out that way,” she said in an interview with Deborah Kalb that was posted online in January. “And we all need some humor, especially now. It’s just the way I write.”

A full obituary will follow.


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