Mavis Cheek’s Londoners are a lot like Woody Allen’s New Yorkers: well paid and well read, keen on romance but prone to divorce. They’re also a little daffy, a little klutzy, and they know it, which saves them from being insufferable. What makes them likable — if not lovable — is their self-skewering wit. The perfect guests for a dinner party.
In Dog Days, Cheek’s narrator is Pat Murray, approaching 40 and stuck in a cold-war marriage to a minor-league opera singer named Gordon. Though her friends (and she’s got dozens of them) urge her to dump the bombastic tenor, Pat keeps putting it off. And putting it off. After all, life with Gordon (except for the occasional shoving match) is more a nuisance than a nightmare, and he is a good father (sort of) to their 10-year-old daughter. Besides, ”there is a world of difference between desiring to separate and being separate.” Cautious woman.
But then Gordon goes too far: He tells Pat when she’s down on her hands and knees cleaning the oven to get up and answer the phone (he’d do it himself except that he’s watching Porgy and Bess on television). Grounds for divorce. No argument here.
On her own for the first time in 11 years, Pat copes, though frenziedly, with all the irritants and calamities of being single again — finding a house, finding her ex-husband a house, landing a job, adopting Brian. Brian? (”If I can’t have Daddy,” says Rachel, the practical daughter, ”can I have a dog?”) Thus, Brian, ”the weakest and wettest of mongrels in the pound.” In due course, the dog is the catalyst (thanks to his mauling of a neighbor’s pet rabbit) for a fine new romance between Pat and a perfectly smashing veterinarian.
A contrived happy ending with a blue-eyed Prince Charming — yikes! Obviously, Mavis Cheek is neither a genius at original plotting nor a feminist critic in novelist’s clothing. But she is a natural and accomplished storyteller who gets plenty of comic mileage from a prose style that mixes high good grammar and donnish syntax with a pop-culture vocabulary, which even includes the occasional four-letter word. B