The Orange Prize winner Suzanne Berne is on familiar ground with her fifth novel examining life in an affluent American village. Littlefield, Massachusetts, is named one of the 10 best places to live in America. Curiously, it also houses an unusually high number of psychotherapists. Clarice Watkins, a sociologist from the University of Chicago, decides to study Littlefield to find out exactly what makes it such a good place to live. She arrives to find a town at war, split between those who want their dogs to be off the leash in the local park and those who object. Opinions become more polarised when someone starts poisoning dogs and an undercurrent of fear pulses through the community.
Berne excels in drawing pithy pen portraits of Littlefield inhabitants, from the quiet anguish of Margaret Downing to the recently separated author George Wechsler, with whom Margaret embarks on an affair. Meanwhile, the children, including Julia Downing, are jostling for position in the popularity stakes and trying out a little bit of teenage rebellion. Slowly, Clarice Watkins discovers that beneath the genteel veneer of happiness lurks a deep pool of unease, so deep that even the dogs are on anti-anxiety medication.
Berne employs a series of vignettes to explore her characters’ lives, observing them as they interact at town meetings, a book club and soccer games. What emerges is a community full of lonely people desperately hoping that life has some unspecified “more” to offer. Margaret Downing and her husband, Bill, are drifting further and further apart; the formidable Mrs Beale, George Wechsler’s mother-in–law, is dismayed by his break up with her daughter; the psychotherapist Naomi Melman is unable to admit that her parenting of her son Matthew leaves a lot to be desired. The concerns of the wider world – war, famine, natural disasters – never seem to impinge on the people of Littlefield, so wrapped up are they in their own everyday problems. No one even thinks to ask Clarice Watkins what she is doing in the village.
Berne’s premise is not original; small town American life has been a favourite subject of several contemporary writers. Her unique voice comes through in the combination of a forensic approach to her characters’ foibles and lyrical descriptions of the changing of the seasons in New England. This is an apparently light tale but there are dark shadows in Littlefield too. Berne’s novel is both absorbing and amusing, and lingers in the memory.
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