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Mameve Medwed, who filled her novels with humor and heartbreak, dies at 79

Mameve Medwed, who filled her novels with humor and heartbreak, dies at 79. She posed in Cambridge on April 23, 1997.GREENHOUSE, Pat GLOBE STAFF

With deft sentences and detailed characters, Mameve Medwed captured in her novels the eternal and ephemeral of Cambridge, where she made her home for decades.

“In Cambridge, the arrival of the students every year was like the swallows coming to Capistrano, the whole city energized, transformed,” she wrote in her 2000 novel “Host Family.”

The season of students returning was when “everything seemed right: the crisp air of early fall; the piles of bright leaves crunching under their feet; the lighted bookstores, their aisles potholed with students cross-legged on the floor.”

Seven novels filled with humor and heartbreak established Ms. Medwed as an author readers turned to for enjoyment — and for reminders of what life was like in both her adopted home of Cambridge and her hometown in Maine.


An enthusiastic and encouraging writing teacher who also wrote reviews and essays, Ms. Medwed was 79 when she died Sunday in the Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln of metastatic lung cancer.

While she welcomed the attention the wit in her writing received, she was quick to note that more was afoot in her novels, and in the work of other writers who traveled a similar path.

“I’d like to make a plug for humorous fiction. I think that people who write funny are dismissed as light,” she told the Globe in 2003. “I say that’s not true. We deal with the things that everyone deals with, but from a domestic point of view, with domestic relationships standing in for bigger things.”

The Massachusetts Book Awards named Ms. Medwed’s best-selling novel “How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life” an honor book.

“Don’t be deceived by Medwed’s light touch and irrepressible sense of humor,” Roberta Silman wrote in a 2006 Globe review of that novel. “Here is a canny writer with a distinctive voice who knows what it is like to be young and loopy in an increasingly loopy world, and who is also inviting parallels with the 19th century, when intelligent women rose above familial tyranny, depression, and illness through sheer will.”


Like the characters in her books — or some of them, anyway — Ms. Medwed “was unfailingly radiant,” said her longtime friend Stacy Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of “Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).”

For the writers in her circle of friends, Ms. Medwed was also a one-person cheering section for their work, a confidant who could be trusted with the roughest rough draft.

“We both sent each other everything. If I wrote a blurb, I sent it to her for her approval,” said the novelist Elinor Lipman, a friend for decades who formerly lived in Boston and Northampton before moving to New York City. “We counted on each other, and it wasn’t just the writing.”

The novelist Stephen McCauley, a neighbor of Ms. Medwed’s in Cambridge, recalled “she was extremely generous to all her writer friends,” throwing parties whenever each one published a book.

“That was very meaningful for all of us,” he said. “She was a very loving person and was extremely modest and self-effacing, but at the same time I think she had this core commitment to her work and to helping other writers.”

Ms. Medwed “set the gold standard in that respect,” Schiff said. “No one did friendship better, no one championed other people’s books as did she.”


For years, Ms. Medwed taught writing at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and knew well the challenges aspiring authors faced.

“Mail,” her first novel, was published in 1997, the year she turned 55, which perhaps “gave her that much more appreciation for the years of struggle and disappointment that people have,” McCauley said, “and maybe more appreciation, too, for her own success.”

The older of two sisters, Mameve Stern was born on Dec. 9, 1942, in Bangor, Maine.

Her father, Harry Stern, was a lawyer. Her mother, Miriam Golden Stern, raised Ms. Medwed and her sister, and also taught preschool in Bangor.

“I was named for two grandmothers, Mamie and Eva,” Ms. Medwed wrote in a 2017 Globe essay, explaining her unique first name.

“Proud of the creative coinage,” her mother “swore that all my babysitters promised to call their first daughters after me,” Ms. Medwed wrote. “Years later, I checked. Not a single newborn Mameve appeared on the birth registers in Bangor, Maine.”

She graduated from Bangor High School and received a bachelor’s degree from Simmons College in 1964.

That same year she married Howard Medwed. They met in nursery school — a photo shows them in the same group — before his family moved away. While in college they reconnected.

Mr. Medwed, a lawyer and civic activist, died in 2019.

At home, Ms. Medwed was an avid collector of “interesting odds and ends,” said her son Daniel of Cambridge.


“My mom was like her writing: beautiful and elegant and larger than life, not just in terms of her personality, but in terms of her interests,” he said.

“She had an eye for beauty, whether it was the written word or the object of art, and our house was a reflection of that — lined with books and faux food and giant wood statues of baseball players and beautiful rugs and Eames chairs and antique armoires.”

Not surprisingly, given her precision on the page, Ms. Medwed made unusual juxtapositions at home feel destined.

“In any normal world it made no sense, but in her world it made perfect sense,” Daniel said. “She had an eye for the perfect sentence, the perfect match.”

Her writing reflected a similar eye for detail. A passage in one of her novels might bring readers to a Cambridge landmark now gone or a scene in a Harvard Square street that now seems frozen in time.

Alternating between writing fiction and penning reviews and essays, Ms. Medwed published widely in places including The New York Times and Gourmet and Yankee magazines. She generally reserved warmer months for journalism and focused anew on fiction each fall.

“I don’t write well in the summer,” she told the Globe in 2002. “I think I’m constitutionally incapable of thinking clearly when it’s hot. I do most of my writing when it’s horrible out. There is nothing better than to be in your study writing when it’s gloomy and you can hear the rain on the roof.”


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.

“The really interesting thing about Mameve, and everyone will tell you the same thing, is that she was just so constant — constant as a friend, constant as a person,” Schiff said.

Ms. Medwed knew not everyone was so constant — or as a writer, she was able to imagine lives in which relationships falter.

“Love can be dangerous, I know that,” she wrote in “Browning,” her bestseller. “Friends betray you. Family members die or disappoint you because you disappoint them. Misunderstandings turn poisonous. You have to be careful.”

Yet during her seven-novel career, few were as adept at romantic comedies that brought forth from fans a collective satisfied sigh.

“You know,” she mused in the 2003 interview, “is there anything wrong with making people laugh and giving them pleasure?”

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