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THE SWEETHEART DEAL by Polly Dugan

[First, a note – somewhere along the way, I stopped including the Depressing-o-Meter in my reviews. I miss it. I think I am going to add it back in. For the newbies, it measures, on a scale of 1 to 10, how depressing the reviewed book is. Most books reviewed on EDIWTB fall into the 6-9 category.]

Last year, I reviewed a collection of short stories by Polly Dugan called So Much A Part Of You. I really enjoyed it, and noted that she had a novel coming out in 2015 that I was looking forward to reading. That novel is now out and it’s called The Sweetheart Deal.

Don’t be misled by the cozy domestic photo on the cover, or by the plot – firefighter husband dies in an accident and best friend moves in to help widow, who is unaware that husband once made best friend sign an agreement that he would take care of widow if anything ever happened to husband – which both suggest conventional women’s fiction with a predictable ending. That’s not really what The Sweetheart Deal is.

Dugan’s writing is spare and matter-of fact. The Sweetheart Deal is told from multiple perspectives – wife Audrey, best friend Garrett, and Audrey’s three sons, switching off each chapter. I liked her attention to detail and the very realistic way that she described how the characters felt and related to each other. I felt like I was in the room with them, watching familiar scenes unfold in ways that made perfect sense. Dugan’s depiction of grief was pretty powerful, especially from Audrey’s perspective. There is a scene that really stuck with me, where Audrey is so incapable of functioning that she can’t even pull an outfit together to leave the house. Her interactions with her sons also seemed very accurate to me.

Of course the main focus of the book is the relationship between Garrett and Audrey. That was the weaker link in the story. I didn’t doubt that the two developed feelings for each other, but I wanted to know why. In order to root for them as a couple and believe that they were right for each other outside of Garrett’s promise to his best friend, I needed to see stronger evidence of their independent connection. Garrett knew Audrey for many years before he flew to Portland to help her through her grief. What did he think of her then, and how did his feelings change, or emerge, when he got to Portland? These questions nagged at me a little while I was reading the book. I just wanted more.

Overall, though, The Sweetheart Deal is readable, engrossing and moving. It’s a small story in scope, with only a handful of characters, but it takes on big, universal issues with understanding and empathy. It wasn’t a perfect read, but it was definitely worth the time. I hope Dugan has more novels in her.

Depressing-0-Meter: 7. It’s about death and grieving, so a 7 is actually pretty good.

 

SO MUCH A PART OF YOU by Polly Dugan


This almost never happens here on EDIWTB, where I am not particularly organized and rarely plan ahead, but I actually finished a book the night before it came out! Shocking! The book is So Much A Part Of You, by Polly Dugan, and it went on sale today.

So Much A Part Of You is a collection of loosely interconnected stories that span from the Depression to the present. Dugan’s stories focus on families and relationships, and particularly how the relationships we develop in our formative years continue to play a big role in our lives as we age. I am not always a big fan of short stories, because I sometimes find them unsatisfying, but I really liked these stories. The threads of connection between the stories (in the form of overlapping characters and one that recurred through most of the book) helped make this collection more cohesive than others that I’ve read.

I like Dugan’s writing style, which is spare and unemotional. The book, however, is full of emotion. Her characters experience love, loss, grief and anxiety, and she conveys those emotions beautifully through their actions and dialogue. I especially liked the college and post-college stories, which accurately captured those confusing years of loneliness and feeling untethered. Some of the parents in So Much A Part Of You are pretty awful, and the characters make mistakes and are often full of regret. No one here is perfect, and there is no neat bow at the end of the book. But isn’t that how life is? I nodded in recognition throughout this book, marveling at Dugan’s ability to capture intense and familiar emotions in such fleeting vignettes.

Dugan has a novel coming out in 2015, which I can’t wait for. I think that she will really take off in the longer format. Until then, tide yourself over with this collection.

Depressing-O-Meter: 7 out of 10, thanks to deaths, abortion, and euthanizations at an animal shelter.