Midway through Suzanne Berne’s latest novel, “The Dogs of Littlefield,” a woman, slightly drunk, surveys the guests assembled around her dinner table. “What happened to me? she thought. How could my life have ended up this way?” In that moment she could be Emma Bovary, Isabel Archer, or any number of tragic heroines. But Margaret Downing is not tragic; she is ordinary. Wife to Bill, mother to Julia, resident of a Boston suburb, and owner of a black Labrador, Margaret is, however, sensitive. She plays Schumann on her piano during the daytime. She feels unloved, yet she keeps trying. “Candles on the table, a vase of flowers, something baked for dessert,” Bill concedes of her daily efforts. “It was graceful of her, it was valiant. And all he wanted was for her to stop.” The reader, too, might tire of Margaret were it not for the psychological depth and comic appeal that Berne grants her and every other character in this near-flawless satire of middle-class America. Like John Updike, Evan Connell, Jane Gardam, and other masters of understatement, Berne draws us into the everyday life of an unremarkable place yet maintains an ironic perspective, her keen eye and her laconic wit missing nothing and sparing nobody.
The place is instantly recognizable. In Littlefield, Mass., on warm days, “[s]oft-hipped mothers wearing large dark sunglasses . . . share mild mutinous jokes about driving to Manhattan one of these days instead of doing the three o’clock school pickup.” Fathers stand together at soccer games, “arms crossed high on their chests, chatting about the weather, the stock market, the craziness worldwide and when it was all going to blow.” Teenagers at night “kept vampire hours, histrionic lyrics pulsing through earbuds . . . stalking each other on Facebook.” Here is the good life with Whole Foods, the commuter rail, and “roughly one percent of the nation’s psychotherapists.” Here, too, is nature, tamed. Or so it seems until Margaret comes across a dead dog in the woods. When similar canine poisonings follow, residents fear the town debate over an off-leash proposal for the local park may have turned deadly. (The public hearing, by the way, is exquisitely droll.)
Throughout the novel, this murder mystery lurks in the undergrowth, half-seen and menacing, while a more mundane dread haunts the Downings’ atrophied marriage. “Margaret heard him head for the hallway and then go up the stairs,” Berne writes of one argument. “Well, there it is, she thought, looking at the dish towel.” No wonder Bill, working for Roche Capital Management and lusting after his teenage daughter’s best friend, asks, “Could I actually be dead . . . and not know it?” Then there is the inevitable affair that, in Berne’s expert hands, becomes as touching as it is farcical. “Afterward they lay together for a time,” she writes of Margaret’s fling with a local writer, “sharing a kind of collegial relief that their ordeal was over, as if they had delivered a joint lecture that was received with indifference and then had retired to a campus bar.”
It is hard to sustain this kind of intimate satire. Characters too easily become types — the whacky therapist, the militant vegan — and subtle changes in tone, from light to dark, can be lost. But “The Dogs of Littlefield,” with its short span from fall to summer, is compressed yet never thin. Even a minor character like the patrician Mrs. Beale, for example, is granted an inner life. “She had become adept over the years at knowing certain things while simultaneously not knowing them,” Berne writes, “especially when it came to her own flesh and blood.” And in a clever twist, the enigmatic Clarice Watkins, a recent arrival, turns out to be an anthropologist who is studying the residents of Littlefield. For all their self-awareness, she concludes, they are “the most unbalanced people of all . . . afraid of everything.”
But Berne is too humane a writer to allow Watkins the last word. That belongs to Bill, anticipating the family vacation in Wellfleet where “he would look out at the ceaseless, swelling sea and know that whatever it was that was missing was going to stay that way.” And to Margaret, who fears that her anxious daughter has learned “far too early the saddest lesson of all: that so much of life was just something to get through.” Perhaps. Yet even this bleak conclusion is undermined by the comic exuberance and restrained beauty of a novel that ends, fittingly, with a nod to nature, the enduring mystery: “Trees, leaves, light, bird.”
By Suzanne Berne
Simon & Schuster, 275 pp., $25
Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.