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Authors: Robb Forman Dew

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Dale Loves Sophie to Death

BOOK: Dale Loves Sophie to Death
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Copyright © 1979, 1981 by Robb Forman Dew

Reading Group Guide copyright © 2001 by Robb Forman Dew and Little, Brown and Company (Inc.)

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Originally published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981

First eBook Edition: September 2001

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

The first chapter of this book originally appeared, in slightly different form, in
The New Yorker
. Excerpt from
The Evidence Against Her
copyright © 2001 by Robb Forman Dew, published by Little, Brown and Company. Reprinted with permission.

Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at

ISBN 978-0-316-05539-0

The Warner Books name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


Chapter One: Dale Loves Sophie to Death

Chapter Two: Summer Time

Chapter Three: One Day

Chapter Four: A Party

Chapter Five: Housekeeping

Chapter Six: The Folly of Mothers and Fathers

Chapter Seven: Easy Living

Chapter Eight: Uncle Buddy and The Homecoming Queen

Chapter Nine: Sorrow and Responsibility

Chapter Ten: Lost and Strayed

Chapter Eleven: Family Reunion

Chapter Twelve: Taking Leave

A Conversation with Robb Forman Dew

Reading Group Guide Questions and Topics for Discussion


Acclaim for Robb Forman Dew’s

Dale Loves Sophie to Death

Winner of the National Book Award

“Robb Forman Dew’s first novel is quiet, complex, and arrestingly elegant.”

—Anne Tyler,
New Republic

“Robb Forman Dew can convey, with a skill matched by few writers today, the quick, peculiar shifts in feelings that we experience, moment to moment, day by day.…With
Dale Loves Sophie to Death,
Mrs. Dew made a precocious debut. Her story of a young woman who returns home to the Middle West delineates, with precision and grace, the intricacies of family love.”

—Michiko Kakutani,
New York Times

“The love that Robb Forman Dew reveals for us in
Dale Loves Sophie to Death
is the love with which we are most familiar, family love, in all its ambiguity, pain, and quiet pleasure.…Dew, with the force of considerable intelligence, has shaped a novel that profoundly satisfies both the mind and the heart.…I’ve gone back to this book several times since I first read it. It has grown richer each time.”

—Robert Wilson,
Washington Post Book World

Dale Loves Sophie to Death
is a stunning, almost uncanny, account of the various possibilities of human love. Robb Forman Dew has a clear vision and a poetic voice. I cared greatly for Dinah and Martin, for the children, the parents, and the friends, and that’s what matters the most in fiction, I think—the reader’s engagement with and feeling for the characters. What a glorious debut!”

—Hilma Wolitzer

“Dew’s lush, dense measured prose can be very beautiful.…It rises at times to an almost Jamesian delicacy.”

New York Times Book Review

“An exquisite, meandering drama about Dinah Howells’s need to resolve her past before she can proceed with the present. The perceptions are so acute, the sentences so well shaped, that Dew transforms the seemingly mundane into understated but stunning revelations.”

Saturday Review

“Dew’s greatest strength as a writer may be her refusal to tie up her stories in the kind of tidily packed endings that occur only in fiction.”

—Charles Solomon,
Los Angeles Times

“I admire Robb Forman Dew’s novel very much. It has generosity of insight and elegance of mind, besides being a mysterious story about that eternal mystery, the family. It is not just a ‘promising first novel,’ but a novel that fulfills its promise.”

—Gail Godwin

“A compact, quietly passionate first novel that is a work of considerable art.…It is a book about families, and it is quite simply beautiful.”

Washington Post Book World

“Robb Forman Dew’s book takes the familiar and renders it with such attention, such intensity, that it seems to me to glow with a rare inner light. If Henry James the moralist and student of fine nuance had written a book about a daughter / wife / mother, contemporary and middle class, this would have been the way it read. She does what the best prose writers do: focuses, or, rather,
focuses our attention on what seems unremarkable in our lives, but by the clarity of her gaze gives it shape and shadow, nuance and
. And, though she is not sentimental, she is a fine writer about satisfaction, deep domestic contentment, which is even more rare. What an authoritative first novel this is.”

—Rosellen Brown

“One of the finest novels by an American writer in recent years.”

—Jonathan Yardley,
Washington Star

Also by Robb Forman Dew


The Evidence Against Her

Fortunate Lives

The Time of Her Life


The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out

A Southern Thanksgiving: Recipes and Musings


Chapter One

Dale Loves Sophie to Death

very summer Dinah was sick in this house she rented. She lay in the double bed alone, amid a jumble of Kleenex and the mail and the morning newspaper, and she did not change the sheets until she felt well. Sometimes two weeks, sometimes three. The light shot into her room in the morning, so that her eyes would ache, and then it shifted and faded as the day wore on, and through all these changes of light she drifted in a fog of sleep and waking and the children’s bodies buffeting against her bed. Propped up on pillows, she could see her three children, through the tall branched shrubs beyond the windows, as they ran around playing or fighting. But she would lie dazed and sure that they could get through the day with only her occasional direction. David, the oldest, was always herding the other two, it seemed; when she closed her eyes, the red imprint of his ushering arms in motion shuddered through her mind as her thoughts drifted away from the actual image.

Her mother often stopped by on the way home from her office in nearby Fort Lyman and brought Dinah food from the deli or some other takeout place. Today she brought a barbecued chicken the size of a dove, and Dinah sat in her bed and ate it with her fingers, sucking the knobs of the little drumsticks like candy. Her mother sat on the vanity bench, at an angle not quite facing the bed, and talked desultorily, because the disarray in which Dinah wore out her illness dismayed her. It had always been assumed in Dinah’s childhood household that illness was a weakness of character, a burden to the entire family, and, above all else, being ill was considered a sly trick. So Mrs. Briggs pushed her straw-colored hair behind her ears impatiently as she sat there required to hear just how Dinah felt. Dinah said she felt feverish; she said she had a sore throat and aching ears. Her mother sat in the early twilight, covertly eyeing herself in the mirror, and she sighed when she noticed that Dinah had sunk down into her pillows once more, leaving the little chicken carcass stripped bare in its greasy wrapper by her side. She thought she bore up very well under these illnesses of Dinah’s.

“I’ll take the children on with me, then,” Mrs. Briggs said, and she collected the parcel of chicken bones from the bed and went to look through the window to see if the children were in sight. Dinah lay unmoving and with her eyes closed. Mrs. Briggs was not a good cook, so she considered the frozen and canned options for the children’s dinner. She also considered scrambled eggs, which were healthful but which no one ever finished at her house. Dinah had told her the reason for this with patient tact, and had advised her about better methods of preparation, but Polly Briggs had never heard all that her daughter said. She still heated butter in a skillet and broke the eggs directly into it, cracking the shells on the aluminum rim of the pan, and then she agitated them as swiftly as possible; they always appeared on the plate as though they had been marbleized, with the yellow and white running separately throughout. Also on the plate she would place one piece of toast with a pat of butter squarely in its middle, to be dealt with however one might wish. These things were gestures: the eggs broken, not just boiled, the toast prebuttered—even the butter itself, rather than margarine. They were quite generous gestures from a woman who cared not at all about food but had a melancholy interest, generally, in the people she fed, and especially in these children to whom she acknowledged a connection.

When the house was empty and there was no sound from the yard, Dinah opened her eyes and regarded the room. This year it was hung with more recent pictures of the family who owned the house. All told, in the past eight years she had spent close to twenty-four months in this house, and although she had never met the owners, she felt that she and they had established a certain intimacy simply by virtue of sharing the same paraphernalia of everyday life. She used up rather than discarded the half-empty jar of mustard in the refrigerator, for instance, and in her view that was a very solemn intimacy; the first summer she would have thrown it out in horror. And, of course, this intimacy in absentia bred its own sort of expectations; Dinah expected to find evidence each summer that life in this house continued during the winter just as she imagined it. She looked with interest at the new photographs hung in the bedroom, because she knew these people—not all their names, but she knew how they were growing up or changing.

This summer there was a new picture of the daughter of the house, whose other photographs, scattered here and there through all the rooms, dated back to her infancy. This current snapshot, enlarged and framed handsomely on the wall opposite the end of the bed, showed a very lovely young woman frozen in the upswing of a jogging step as she ran through a prosperous-looking neighborhood. Dinah studied her drowsily, thinking that she must know her. The girl looked as if she would be interesting to know, with her hair flying around her face and a cast-off sweater tied around her neck by its sleeves. It was possible that they had passed each other at some time or other—at a state park, perhaps, or some restaurant. A public bathroom maybe. Dinah was drenched in her luxurious illness—flu with fever. She felt she glowed inside and out with this lovely, gentle radiance of almost 102 degrees. Her head throbbed independently, so she could objectively consider the shell of pain encasing her mind. She swallowed two aspirin, and when they took effect she allowed herself to sleep until the aching of her head and limbs woke her automatically. When it did, she just lay there in bed, at home, considering her surroundings.

t the beginning of each summer, Dinah and Martin Howells drove west from the Berkshires, where they lived, with their children in the back seat, and in two days’ time they were in the lush farmland outside Enfield, Ohio. When they had first rented a house in Enfield, eight years earlier, they had had only David, then two years old. By now, the children thought it was the only place to spend those long weeks when there was no school. Dinah felt that these modest hills and voluptuous, rolling fields of corn and soybeans were essential to the very stability of her being. She had such a familiarity with this countryside that it didn’t occur to her to miss the occasional sweeping view of valleys one happens on at high altitudes in New England. Instead, she hugged herself there in the front seat the moment she became aware of the vast, light-filled landscape proceeding endlessly in every direction. She felt as light-hearted, always, as a claustrophobe must feel upon emerging from an elevator.

On the first morning in their rented house Dinah was always affected with a reckless, thoughtless euphoria. She would make her nostalgic pilgrimage through the rooms, moving dreamily, and she would open all the curtains so that nowhere could there be found a somber corner. “Oh, my God! It’s so good to be somewhere where I can pull up all the shades!” She would insist that everyone agree with her. “Isn’t it? Don’t you feel good?” She would not acknowledge the hesitation with which Martin always embarked upon this summer venture. She didn’t think of his saying, “But why do you do this to yourself year after year?”

Dinah had no answer to that. It was only that in West Bradford at Christmas, when a card arrived from the Hortons, the owners of the house in Enfield, she looked out at the winter and began to entertain thoughts of summer. Those thoughts did not run deep but were like photographs flashing through her mind. This winter, on the day the Hortons’ card arrived, Dinah and Martin had happened to go to lunch at a pleasant restaurant, decorated with an abundance of greens and a large blue spruce standing in the foyer unadorned except for hundreds of tiny white lights. There were flowers on the tables, and other people’s children were being allowed to wander around the room and stretch their legs while their parents lingered over coffee. Everyone was well dressed, even with a certain dash, and the stark landscape—the sky, dense and heavy just overhead, the boundless white ground—only emphasized the singular feeling of goodwill Dinah had toward the other diners. But with all this the atmosphere just brushed over Dinah’s senses; it did not permeate her thoughts, because she had tucked the beautiful Caspari card from Adele Horton into her purse; she was thinking of what it said, and her mind had become entangled with images of her summer household. The message was nothing, really: “Wish we could share with you some of this lovely apple chutney I’ve put up for special friends. Will certainly leave some for you if you take the house again this summer.” But Dinah had found such a homely notion—to share some chutney—stupefyingly seductive. She could not help but sit there in a restaurant in New England with her husband and consider the life being led right at that moment in that house in Enfield. Such an intense life—so full that it could not be contained in ordinary spaces and overflowed in little notes and letters and photographs inscribed with cryptic messages that even fluttered from the cookbooks Dinah sometimes pulled down from Mrs. Horton’s shelves. More letters were stuffed haphazardly between the books in the living-room cases, and curling photographs and mysterious souvenirs filled every extra drawer. Quaint drawings by children or friends were carefully framed and hung in odd corners. It seemed to Dinah that so much life went on there that her own existence could not compare. She was beginning to think that the five of them—she and Martin and the children—were simply too sparse a group to generate such vitality.

BOOK: Dale Loves Sophie to Death
10.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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