Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: Men and Dogs

I basically jumped for joy when I received an ARC (Advanced Reader's Copy) of Men and Dogs by Katie Crouch in the mail.

Crouch's debut novel, Girls in Trucks, was phenomenal and I'd been waiting for her sophomore attempt since the deal was announced (funnily enough, check it out here), though at the time I seem to have had slightly incorrect information. The announcement was apparently for her third novel--to come in 2011 from Poppy--so, I'll take this moment to retract my statement last August that The Magnolia League would be her second novel. But that's neither here nor there.

Set to release next month from Little, Brown, Men and Dogs is an interesting departure for Crouch. She steps away from the debutante world of Charleston, NC to explore the families outside of those circles. Specifically, the less socially accepted Legare family with all their dirty little secrets.

Hannah's father disappearred before her twelfth birthday, and she's been convinced he's alive somewhere ever since, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Escaping to California for college, Hannah never stops searching for her missing dad, trying to fill the hole his supposed abandonment left in her heart. She also never stops messing up her own life. So, it's no surprise to her brother, Palmer--Charleston's gay veterinarian--when Hannah's husband leaves her, she falls off a three-story building after drinking too much, and then she's brought home to North Carolina for some R&R. And, of course, when she gets there, her breakdown just gets worse.

Hannah and Palmer are both extremely troubled characters but in realistic and completely parallelled ways. Though Hannah fits Crouch's M.O. of the somewhat unlikable protagonist, you can feel for her despite her emotional blockages. And Palmer, with his committment-phobe tendencies, is simultaneously a jerk and a sweetheart. I admire Crouch's ability to create such immensely flawed main characters that somehow inspire my love despite kind of hating them. It's a testament to the realism of her novels, something I loved about her writing from page one of Girls in Trucks.

The plot in this one, however, rang a little off key to me. Don't get me wrong, I certainly enjoyed it. It tackled some very difficult topics--faith, grief, abandonment, sexuality, etc.--and got the gears in my head turning, as all good books should. But something felt lackluster about it to me. Maybe I'm just reacting to the lack of real action in the story. Not a lot happens in the present day--it's more about past rememberances and how the characters feel now as a result than it is about action. While this is a valid choice for Crouch to make, the movement of the story felt a bit stagnant to me, so I wasn't as invested in it as I would have liked. Also, the somewhat generic premise of a woman returning home to sort out the way her past affects her messy present is nothing really new.

Crouch's writing, however, is what really drew me in here, just as it did in Girls in Trucks. Her unique and somewhat fractured writing style packs a mean punch and keeps you turning the pages. Filled with with humor, cynicism, and unexpected charm, Men and Dogs is an impressively written novel that makes you laugh, cry, and crinkle your brow again and again.

The Last Word: An intense and thought-provoking study of grief, loss, and reluctant self-discovery that any women's fiction fan should give a try.

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