The Big Love
Some first novels start off with a lot of promise and then fail to follow up. ‘The Big Love”, a debut novel from Sarah Dunn, has the opposite problem. Although you may be tempted to give up on the book, stick through the first several chapters and you’ll be rewarded with a funny, neurotic look at one woman’s trials and growth through a breakup with her live-in boyfriend. At first meandering and then more purposeful, the story ultimately leads to a very satisfying ending.
The book follows Alison Hopkins, columnist for a Philadelphia weekly, is comfortable in her relationship with bland boyfriend Tom, who unfortunately has been cheating on her for months with an old college flame, Kate Pearson. He leaves Alison for Kate by going out for mustard before a dinner party that the two are hosting and not coming back. Things then get worse (or better perhaps) for Alison when she throws long-kept sexual mores to the winds and sleeps with new boss Henry within a few days of meeting him. Of course, things then definitely get worse as she’s fired from her job and then takes Tom back. Or is that things getting better?
Well, the story doesn’t so much as follow Alison as pull the reader into her mind, first-narrative that for the first third of the book flies off on more tangents than a high school geometry class. Alison’s what you might call an organic thinker, free-associating from memories of a parade of therapists to Gwyneth Paltrow in “Sliding Doors” to her evangelical Christian upbringing to how her newspaper’s owner’s wife drowned in their swimming pool to why her only other lover (who turned out to be gay) has an Asian last name and yet is not Asian. With all that pinging about and a lot of run on sentences, you might start seeing why Tom left Alison and sympathizing with him.
Stick with the book, though. After Alison sleeps with Henry, Dunn’s storytelling gets much crisper, concentrating only on what we need to understand Alison’s psyche. The quirky, jokey side trips drop off dramatically, and the real humor of the lead character and the charm of the writing begin to shine through. By the time Alison wings a dinner roll at a blind date’s head after he spouts some particularly insulting opinions on the shelf life of a woman’s eggs, you’ll be cheering for the protagonist and maybe even identifying with her neuroses.
Dunn’s first novel starts off as a wannabee “Sex and the City” or, worse, “Suddenly Susan”, but evolves into a nice journey of self-discovery. Sure there are the attempts at coining new terms for relationships (a “greasy pancake” is a man you date who soaks up all the bad “grease” left over from a previous relationship so a woman’s “griddle will be ready to go”) and funny, breezy dialogue about sex and men. Consider the following exchange between Alison and her friend Cordelia about why men stray:
“I’m not sure if your big penis theory is correct,” I said to Cordelia. “Tom has a reasonably size penis. Nothing to write home about.” “‘Dear Mom and Dad, I just met a man with a reasonably size penis,’” Cordelia said. “You’re right. Nobody would write that letter.” “Anyhow, Kate had already seen it back in college, so I don’t know how their affair can be pinned on his desire to show it to her.” “Unless…unless it grew…So he needed to show it to her again,” she said…”I don’t think penises grow much late in life,” I said. “Which is a shame, really,” Cordelia said.
All that aside, “The Big Love” is not so much about Alison’s sexual exploits or her search for the title relationship as it is about her realization that what love is and what she is, and isn’t, willing to put up with for it. And that’s what makes up for the novel’s choppy start and notches it up above the average beach read.
by Sarah Dunn
Published by Little, Brown and Company. List price $21.95.