BookBrowse Reviews The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

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The Dogs of Littlefield

by Suzanne Berne

The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne X
The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2017, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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A novel that reveals the discontent concealed behind the manicured lawns and picket fences of darkest suburbia.

I was surprised to learn, upon perusing the copyright page of American author Suzanne Berne's new novel, The Dogs of Littlefield, that it had actually been published in the United Kingdom three years earlier. It makes a sort of sense – one of Berne's previous novels, A Crime in the Neighborhood, is a previous winner of the Orange Prize, one of the most prestigious UK literary awards, now called the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. But this novel satirizing a privileged American suburb just feels so...American.

Fictional Littlefield, Massachusetts, is the kind of town that epitomizes the American Dream. Located within commuting distance of Boston, populated largely by college professors, investment bankers, psychotherapists, and their well-adjusted children; home to well-preserved older houses, leafy streets, good schools, a cozy diner, and a popular park, Littlefield has recently landed on one of those round-ups of the best places to live in America. Which is why it's come to the attention of sociocultural anthropologist Clarice Watkins of the University of Chicago, who until recently has spent her whole career researching communities in crisis that are victims of global destabilization. What, Dr. Watkins wonders, must it feel like to live in a town like Littlefield, where "good quality of life" trumps global destabilization?

Within days of Dr. Watkins's arrival, though, Littlefield erupts in a crisis of its own making. A vigorous and contentious public debate about the pros and cons of allowing dogs off-leash in the city park has pitted neighbors against one another, a tense situation that escalates quickly when the bullmastiff owned by local novelist George Wechsler turns up dead, the victim of an apparent poisoning. As the canine body count rises over the next several months, so do Dr. Watkins's opportunities to observe the residents of Littlefield in their natural habitat, gaining invitations to their dinner parties, book clubs, bar mitzvahs, and birthday parties, and eventually learning more about these suburban denizens than they may even know about themselves.

Central to Dr. Watkins's observations are the Downings – Margaret, Bill, and their daughter Julia. At first glance, the Downings seem like the ideal family: Bill is a successful investment banker, and Margaret is a former music teacher who now stays home with Julia, who plays oboe and soccer in middle school. Even their dog, Binx, is adorable. But, as in Littlefield itself, there are more than a few chinks in the Downings' well-constructed armor, imperfections that become more and more apparent as the latest Littlefield crisis inspires suspicions, betrayals, and profound mistrust.

What does "good quality of life" mean? Are people's own problems largely just distortions of perception? Do comfort and complacence always go hand in hand? These are questions that run through The Dogs of Littlefield, questions that form the focus of Dr. Watkins's investigations, but will eventually be shared by the novel's readers as well. However, this isn't just a novel of ideas; Berne's scrutiny of upper-middle-class suburbia is also grounded in specific scenes that offer rich fodder for satire: a town meeting, a dinner party, and a book group (particularly ironic since Berne's novel itself is more than likely to spark heated discussion at countless book groups). Frequently hilarious, always intriguing, Berne's foray into the dining rooms and psychotherapy offices of Littlefield will prompt readers to look anew at their own aspirations and relationships.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in February 2016, and has been updated for the January 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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