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You’ll woof, you’ll cry: Mary Guterson’s “Gone to the Dogs” debuts Tuesday
After some reviewers categorized her first novel as “not your typical chick lit,” Mary Guterson tried to write her second novel straight. She wanted to prove – to herself? the world? – that she could produce a serious novel.
She finished it. Then trashed it.
“Enough people told me, look, it’s a gift to be able to write humor,” she said. “So why don’t you just do what you do?”
Three years later, the Bainbridge author has followed “We Are All Fine Here” with “Gone to the Dogs.” And on the release of this deadpan, sweet-sharp story about a twenty-something woman on a semi-misguided search for self and love, Guterson has made a bemused peace with the fact that she, and her work, are laugh-out-loud hysterical.
“Sometimes I can be talking to someone, and I say something, and they start laughing, and I didn’t know it was funny,” she said.
She’ll get more of an opportunity for unintended laughter on Tuesday evening, when “Gone to the Dogs” makes its public debut at Eagle Harbor Book Co.
Where Julia, the heroine of “We Are All Fine Here,” was anger-driven, the author says her “Gone to the Dogs” heroine is anxiety-driven. Rena’s ex-fiancée (of seven years, no less) has recently left to take up with a long-legged blonde veterinarian, explaining lamely and after the fact that he and Rena have nothing in common. Appallingly, the happy couple has also acquired a dog.
Feeling bereft, adrift and schlubby, Rena obsessively circles her ex’s house. Then she impulsively steals the pooch, whom she nicknames The Big Guy. Her voyage of self-discovery, in a ship disguised as a trash-infested Subaru, begins.
Those who know Bainbridge will smile at some of the book’s insider references. “Captain Charles Wilkes Junior High” makes an appearance, as does “Cascade Boulevard,” a nod to the north end’s Cascade Avenue, near the author’s first home on the island.
Those who know Guterson will find bits of her own persona presented through Rena, not just in her wisecracking sensibility but also in her personal trajectory.
Rena, like Guterson once did, struggles with what she “does,” i.e. for a living. We learn that she, like Guterson, once worked as a speech therapist but (unlike Guterson) didn’t actually like children. We learn that as a child she wanted to be an actress but suffered terrible stage fright and didn’t have a lot of talent. So now she waits tables because she has a skill for it, it pays the bills and she can’t think of anything better to do.
No spoilers here as to what happens to Rena on that front, but Guterson understands the unmoored feeling that comes from not recognizing that you’re good at something. Or, more accurately, knowing that you’re good at something but not realizing that what you can do is special, and that it’s worthwhile to make a living that way.
“I didn’t know I could write, even though I’d always written. I thought everybody could write,” Guterson said.
The author credits her husband, Rob Crichton, for telling her in the midst of struggling with her speech therapy career that doing what she liked for a living could be as simple as just...doing it.
“And I laughed. ‘Well what do you mean?’ I said. If anyone had ever talked to me like that before, I didn’t hear them. He had so much more faith in me than I had in myself. ”
Judaism, as both a culture and a religion, is also central to the plot and to Rena’s character development.
This is noteworthy for an author and a heroine who are both natives of the Northwest, not exactly known as a Jewish epicenter. Guterson said there were only a handful of Jewish kids in her Seattle elementary school, maybe three others in her grade. They didn’t necessarily hang out together, “but we knew we were a tribe.”
Rena, like Guterson, goes around and around the question, “Why do I feel so strongly Jewish, when I don’t believe in anything?”
The query is called into relief as Rena observes her older sister, formerly the pot-dealing Alicia and now the Orthodox, wig-wearing Aviva, who met her husband in Israel and now rules a kosher-keeping roost.
Rena’s baffled observations on Aviva’s varied hair coverings – e.g. doesn’t a modesty wig defeat its purpose when it makes its wearer look sexier than usual? – encapsulate her ambivalence about the religion she was born into, even as her tenderness toward Aviva speaks to the bonds of family. Guterson herself has two Orthodox siblings, and once had a close Orthodox friend in New York who talked longingly sometimes about going to the beach and swimming in a bathing suit, with her hair uncovered.
“I can see how it would be, you know, a thought,” Guterson said.
The original title for “Gone to the Dogs” was, “I Hope You’re Very Happy,” syntactically in line with “We Are All Fine Here.” The publisher said no, that won’t stick in people’s heads; people also like books with dogs on the cover.
Nonetheless, Guterson considers this one the second in a triad, with the final installment to come. Similar questions, similar snarks, different decade.
“I think I did okay with 30 and 40. Now I’m ready to do 50,” she said.
Have you seen Mary?
Mary Guterson reads from “Gone to the Dogs” at 7:30 p.m. July 7. at Eagle Harbor Book Co. To hear Guterson being funny without trying, see www.maryguterson.com.