Aug 20 2007
Dear Ms. Gaffney,
Your newest novel, Mad Dash, brought home how much I miss your voice in Romance. The thoughtfulness and delicacy of your prose, the sense of fullness and vitality you portray in the fictional worlds of your novels, remind me why I began reading that genre in the first place: because the wondrous complexity of emotionally intimate relationships is endlessly compelling. All of the novels of yours I have read –" and this is my first foray into your "women's fiction–? work –" express this truth in both emotionally and intellectually satisfying ways.
Mad Dash is no exception, and perhaps it even proves the rule. Told primarily through the alternating perspectives of Dash and Andrew Bateman, the novel tracks Dash's 20-year itch, her restless unease in a life made comfortable but no longer satisfying after the death of her mother and the departure of her only child, daughter Chloe, to college. In Dash's dramatic reconstruction of her own life, she was the center of her mother's universe –" as Chloe is in Dash's –" and once the twin stars in Dash's world depart, Dash feels she's lost a significant measure of her identity. Like many women, Dash measures herself by the regard of others. ling a friend what drew her to her husband, Dash confesses: "'Oh, I don’t know. Well, he was cute. And sort of courtly, I thought. Knightly. And I could tell he liked me–"I always like people who like me.'" Describing Andrew, Dash consistently refers to him as her "rock,–? and like most rocks of substantive weight, Andrew is a fixed point in Dash's madly active emotional world. Where Dash is impulsive, Andrew is reflective. Where Dash craves constant stimulation, Andrew likes quiet. While Dash has a high tolerance for chaos, Andrew craves order.
All of which is fine, better than fine, actually, until Dash loses her emotional bearings, and Andrew's grounding only makes her feel bored and tied down: The sandwich generation: I’m so tired of that expression. In the last nine months, both halves of my sandwich have been pried off and eaten. I’m the soft, squishy center, exposed, unprotected. Unsafe, that’s the word. Like Bambi after the hunters left. All I have now is Andrew to protect me. Which, of course, he can't, at least not in the way Dash perceives her own need. No one can, really, but Dash cannot yet see that because she's in pain and nursing her discontent. Add one half-frozen puppy on the doorstep, Andrew's indifferent assumption that the dog will be taken to the pound, and a vacation cabin in Virginia, and Dash fashions her own remedy of sorts: she takes off with the puppy and flees to the cabin.
Everything passes in a sort of hazy languor for a while, especially as Andrew tries to comprehend what has happened. Dash's flights are not new to him (I'm tempted to call them 'Dash's flights of fancy,' because as a photographer, Dash tends to stage her life the same way she does a photograph). In fact, right before their wedding, Dash told Andrew she couldn't marry him and ran away to her mother's house, freaked out by Andrews's new haircut, which reminded her of his emotionally punishing father, who did not approve of Dash. When Andrew showed up at his future mother in law's house, she told him a story that he couldn't understand but we do: Dash is a woman whose need for independence is just as strong as her need for protection and reassurance, and the paradox generates quite a bit of emotional drama. All these years later, Andrew is still somewhat perplexed by Dash, but he's also tired, and so he doesn't go after her; instead, he stays home and straightens the house, nurses his own frustration, and indulges his hypochondriac tendencies. It's not until the couple tries therapy with a rather unconventional counselor that the temporary respite of the separation becomes something more:
It’s been a game until now. I was dancing on a thin edge, but part of me liked it because I knew I had a safety net. I could call the game off any time and skip back to safety–"Andrew’s infinitely tolerant arms would be wide open. Now he’s taken himself away. "I feel more like myself," he said. So I was diluting him, my needs were camouflaging him; without me he’s the pure, unretouched image. Well, if it’s true, it’s true. Neither of us was telling stories in Fogelman’s office.
Once the underlying discontents in the relationship are articulated, so begins the real emotional revelations for Andrew and Dash, and for the reader, as well.
At one level, the story of Dash and Andrew's twenty-year marriage seems so ordinary. Although both are older than I am, and at a different place in their life together, I recognize them, understand them, and find them to be portrayed with a real emotional and psychological authenticity. They make sense to me, and so do most of their choices and reactions. Dash is that woman who can egg you on to the most outrageous fun; she's infectiously optimistic, dynamic, emotional in her relationships, and fun to watch. She's also self-centered and bossy in the way of one who wants the best for you but may not know what that is. Because she constructs her sense of well-being from the outside in, she's unpredictable and can be needy, despite her convincing front of independence. And what she resents in Andrew –" his somewhat static predictability –" is also the very thing she needs, something that both comforts and frustrates her.
Andrew, on the other hand, seems a somewhat complacent academic, unwilling to put himself out far enough to move from associate to full professor and give up teaching to become chair of the History Department at Mason-Dixon College. Although very sensitive, he tends to experience emotions indirectly –" through the personal journals his students write, for example. Quiet and superficially staid, Andrew is actually complex and multi-layered, a Jefferson scholar who does not seem to have recognized how perfect an allegory of his own life his study of Jefferson is. The son of an insensitive tyrant, Andrew has spent his life deliberately pursuing a different direction (even refusing to become a lawyer like his father, much to the old man's disappointment), not defiant so much as cautious, focused, and conscientious. He cannot, for example, embrace the New Historicism that trained a harsh light on Jefferson's racial hypocrisy without contextualizing his contradictions and focusing on his contributions to American democracy:
"He was definitely a racist–"he believed blacks were inferior to whites. Truly believed it. But you’d have to, wouldn’t you, to make a man your slave? I don’t know if he was a hypocrite. He warned against the ‘amalgamation’ of the races, and he had children with Sally Hemings, his slave. "How am I expected to defend that? I can’t. When I try, I hate the words I have to use, even though they’re true–"he lived a life of his times, he can’t be judged by ours, in every other respect his principles were irreproachable, he was born too soon …"
Like Andrew, Jefferson suffered from migraines; unlike Andrew, he had a close relationship with his father. And because Andrew believes that he would have to sell Jefferson out to advance as a scholar –" become a "Founding Father basher–? –" Andrew holds himself back, unwilling to negotiate yet one more rocky harbor, already feeling thrashed against the disapproval of his father and the vivid impact of his wife's larger than life personality. A gifted teacher, Andrew has eschewed the responsibilities of leadership for self-contained neutrality. Dash's departure finally awakens him to the fact that she isn't the only one with unsettled emotional business: "If you know a man well enough, you can forgive him for almost anything. Don’t you think so? Not that a historian’s job is to forgive. But a man’s might be." Both Dash and Andrew have lessons to learn about forgiveness and self-acceptance. Both must understand that they are more agents than victims of their emotional paralysis, and each must discover how to be more flexible and available to each other. And they must forgive themselves, as well as each other.
From the beginning of their acquaintance, Dash and Andrew have joked about having nothing in common. It's not true, of course, but the excitement of the superficial differences between them creates a necessary friction against the difficulty of making a successful life together. What starts as a simple defense of a half frozen puppy –" [a] pinch hitter in the ball game of [Dash's] discontent –" becomes an emotional reckoning for two people who have grown a bit selfish in the "game–? of marriage. As Dash notes, Sometimes prolonging even bad things, painful things, is better than getting them all nice and neat and settled. Which turns out to be true, although not for the reasons Dash believes.
Mad Dash is really quite an extraordinary book about an ordinary marriage. I understood why Dash and Andrew were together in the first place and why they felt broken. I was appreciative of the hard work they each had ahead of them to make things right and grateful that they were each thoughtful and intelligent enough to move forward without the help of some awkward and intrusive deus ex machina. In the same way that the "bad . . ., painful things–? are human-made, so are the remedies and the healing process. The real beauty of this book is that it is so poignantly, so essentially human.
While Dash's narrative is generally compelling and entertaining, it is difficult to portray a delightfully self-centered character without annoying the reader with that quality, and a few times I found myself detach from Dash's monologues. There are also two secondary relationships in the novel, alternative romantic possibilities that felt more like convenient set-ups than natural occurrences, and they felt forced to me. While I understood how they helped to facilitate Andrew and Dash's growth, they didn't have enough emotional resonance and characteristic logic to work for me. By and large, though, I was completely seduced by both Dash and Andrew, unabashedly rooting for their individual happiness, and hopeful for their future together. A-