The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

Berne2Berne is an American writer known for her adept portrayals of family life. Like authors Carol Shields, Edith Pearlman, and Anne Tyler, Berne is a miniaturist, expertly focusing on the private lives of her characters.

In her 2013 novel The Dogs of Littlefield, Berne writes of a fictional Boston suburb whose inhabitants are upper middle class and educated. In the book, The Wall Street Journal names Littlefield as one of the “Twenty Best Places to Live in America.”  The town is home to 1,146 psychotherapists, 679 psychiatrists, 3 pizza parlors, 6 dog groomers, fine schools, and leafy streets.

However, like all of Berne’s books’ settings, darkness lurks in Littlefield. An off-leash proposal for dogs sets neighbor against neighbor. Then, mysteriously, several dogs are poisoned. Who amongst the residents is perpetrating these heinous acts?

Much of the plot focuses on Margaret Downing, a sympathetic wife and mother whose husband, Bill, no longer loves her. From the outside, her life seems picture perfect, but in truth, she suffers from acute anxiety, her teen daughter is snarky, and her dog is out of control. The dog, in fact, is a metaphor for the state of Margaret’s life. Other characters include George, a novelist (of sorts); Hedy, a widow whose radio talk shows provide day-long company; and Dr. Clarice Watkins, a sociologist who is secretly studying the effects of “good quality of life.”

The Dogs of Littlefield was first published in Great Britain in 2013 and was reviewed in a variety of literary journals at that time. In a December 21, 2013 review in The Guardian, writer Alex Clark calls the book “a cross between a comedy of manners and a whodunit.”  The novel can be read as social satire or as a deeper commentary on alienation. It is a little gem of a book—quirky, humorous, and poignant. As Clark’s review in The Guardian concludes: Berne has created an intriguing portrait of the kind of loneliness that can only exist in a crowd, and given the lie to all those surveys that suggest a place or its community can be summed up by its house prices, crime statistics and performance indicators.

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