“The Dog I Loved” is by Susan Wilson, many of whose books are about the relationships between people and the dogs who redeem them. Her books are about loss, betrayal, romance, and most of all, about what the love of a dog can do to save us, to make us feel whole, to make us more human. And in this novel, she does just that.
It’s the story of two women, Rosie and Meghan, who meet because of a dog, and it’s the story of how both their lives are changed by that dog and another dog, Shadow, the mystical dog that appears later in the story. It’s also about abuse and loneliness and how we can find comfort in friendship and by having a loving canine companion by our side.
We meet Rosie when she is in prison, serving time for what was an accidental death. She killed her fiancé Charles when backing up his car after a wedding party. Although it was an accident, his very wealthy mother was not about to let her precious son’s death go unpunished, and she used all her influence to make sure Rosie got sentenced to prison.
Meghan served in the military and came back to civilian life after losing the use of her legs and other injuries. She’s in a wheelchair, dependent on her parents, and life seems unbearable. Then Meghan learns about service dogs, and she ends up meeting Rosie, who is training Shark, a service dog, as part of a prison program. Meghan had been accepted into the program and assigned to work with Rosie for two weeks, learning how to continue with Shark’s training, how to give commands, and how to care for Shark, her new service dog.
The women become friends, and that friendship changes both lives — especially Rosie’s life. When Rosie gets out of prison after having her sentence mysteriously vacated, she is hired by a family trust to oversee the renovation of an old home even though she doesn’t know anything about construction. While living at the house, Rosie meets a strange dog who appears and moves in with her, providing her with the emotional support she desperately needs.
Rosie’s story about her engagement and her estrangement from her Irish-Catholic family emerges slowly over the course of the novel. And while she never served in the military, because of the abuse she suffered during her engagement and during her time in prison, she suffers from PTSD almost as much as any veteran. Her new dog, Shadow, gives her the emotional support to face life, to face her family, and to ultimately face her late fiancé’s mother.
Meghan also gains much from her service dog. Shark allows Meghan to live independently, get a job, travel, and function like anyone else — no help needed. And while both Meghan and Rosie have been loners, finding it difficult to make friends, they find in each other a kind of kindred spirit.
During the reconstruction of the home, Rosie finds the diary of Susannah Day, a woman whose husband had just died and who would soon be losing her home because women, even if they could pay rent, were not supposed to live alone. Although she was a nurse, or as much a nurse as anyone was in the early 1800’s, she has found her patients going more and more to the new local doctor, depriving her of her source of income. She is then befriended by the dog of a patient who has died, and that dog provides much comfort to her just as the dogs of Rosie and Meghan provide comfort for them. Rosie loves reading about Susannah and her life, and reading about the difficulties of life as a widow without family gives Rosie courage to do what she must without feeling sorry for herself.
Rosie is often not a likable character. She allowed her extremely rich boyfriend-then-fiancé to drive her from her working-class family, and when her father was dying, she traveled to Paris with Charles instead of visiting her father daily in his hospital room. She allowed him to control her life, buying her expensive clothes and jewels with devastating consequences. When she was arrested for the murder of Charles, not one person in her family would even take her phone call. She was alone.
But over the course of the story, we see Rosie struggle to maintain her dignity, fall in love with the puppy she trains, and help Meghan with that puppy even though she knows it will break her heart to give Shark up. Rosie appreciates the chance she is given after she gets out of prison, and she is determined to reconcile with her family.
Meghan is also struggling. Her disability has left her not wanting to rely on anyone for help, and when she meets a fellow veteran who suffers from PTSD and has a service dog of his own, she doesn’t know if she can handle a relationship. She’s insecure and frightened, and for someone who faced death daily in the Middle East, that’s not a good feeling.
But dogs help conquer negative feelings, and in this story there are many dogs — all of them the best of dogs. Every dog in the story is like dogs everywhere in that they just want a person to love, they want to feel needed, and they want to be loved. And while the women are sympathetic, it’s the dogs in the story that we fall in love with. We know that with Shark and Shadow loving them, both women will be fine.
The prologue is about the mystery dog who appears to Rosie when he’s needed. This dog appears over the centuries when a person desperately needs help. “Where we once guarded against predators, we now guard against loneliness.” Wilson knows that that’s what dogs do best — they keep us company and they show us the best of ourselves. That’s why we love them so fiercely in return.
Review first posted on Bookreporter.com.