The novel “Dog Days” by Ericka Waller is kind of like what might happen if Fredrik Backman decided to write a novel with Jenny Colgan. It has Backman’s sardonic view of life and the people we might encounter and Colgan’s setting on the coast of England with blustery weather and beautiful views and muddy dogs. In this novel, we meet several important characters: Dan, a counselor who is OCD, and who has not had the courage to come out as gay; Lizzie, who lives in a women’s shelter with her son, Lenny; and George, an irascible old man whose wife has died and who doesn’t know how to cope.
Like the last novel I read, “I Thought You Said This Would Work,” by Ann Garvin, Waller uses the dogs as a vehicle to bring together the three main characters. Two of them do not care for dogs at the start of the story but come to realize that unconditional love and understanding, the kind that many of us are lucky enough to receive from our four-legged (and sometimes three-legged) friends, can be transforming. Or at least comforting.
George not only lost his wife, the sweet, uncomplaining Ellen, he lost his way. Ellen took care of George; she washed his clothes, prepared the meals he liked (nothing fancy, nothing foreign), got his prescriptions refilled, made his doctor’s appointments, and kept his life running like a well-oiled machine. Now that she had the temerity to die suddenly, with no notice, he is bereft. She also had the nerve to get a puppy just before her demise. George is determined to drink himself to death, and he sits in his chair, drinking and ignoring the puppy, until a neighbor intervenes. But although George might be bathing and feeding Poppy, the puppy, he’s still the nasty, foul-mouthed, curmudgeonly man who has alienated most everyone around him. Until Betty appears.
Dan is shy. His only friend is his cousin Luke, and they are close. They run together and walk their dogs together. They share their lives; at least they seem to. While Luke shares stories about his many girlfriends, Dan has not told Luke that he is gay. No one knows, at least until Atticus comes into his office for counseling and the attraction is instant. And mutual. But Atticus has problems that are more than Dan, or anyone, can help with. In the meantime, Atticus introduces Dan to life, to dancing, drinking, loving. And Dan will never be the same.
Lizzie appears to be a battered woman. After all, she’s living in a women’s shelter with her son, Lenny. Lenny is unhappy that he can’t see his father (Lizzie says she doesn’t know where he is), and when he starts at the local school, he is drawn to Luke, who befriends Lenny. Lizzie also befriends Luke, and we are surprised at how quickly things progress. After all, Lizzie has fled an abusive relationship. We also wonder why Lizzie is so reluctant to go to the police to report her abuse. There are mysteries there that we can’t solve, at least not without the clues and information that Waller doesn’t share until much later in the story. But we do see that Maud, old and a bit cantankerous herself, and Lizzie, begin to bond. And it’s Maud who provides—much to Lizzie’s astonishment—some much needed comfort when it’s needed.
Dogs do that. They love us, they comfort us, they adore us. Even when we might not deserve it. George certainly doesn’t deserve Poppy’s love, but Waller wisely shows us that what we deserve—or don’t deserve—doesn’t count with dogs. They love unconditionally and fiercely. And we are the better for it.
This is not one of those novels with happy endings. Rather, like real life, some endings are better than others. Some of us experience unexpected loss, and while it changes our lives, we endure. Some of us are flexible enough to work through change, especially with the help of others. And some of us must confront our mistakes and our misdeeds and make amends. All of that is easier when we have a loving, nonjudgmental companion with fur.
Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by St. Martin’s Griffin, the publisher, for review purposes.