Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: The Big Love

Sarah Dunn’s surprisingly touching debut novel The Big Love is an interesting exploration of the empowering effects a devastating breakup can have for a woman. Alison Hopkins, an engaging and slightly neurotic 32-year-old, is happy in love with her live-in boyfriend Tom. That is, until the night Tom goes out to buy mustard for a dinner party and never returns. He calls Alison from a payphone, tells her that he is in love with his ex-girlfriend (with whom he has been having an affair for months), and will not be coming home. It is at this point of confused shock that Dunn begins her sweetly humourous investment into Alison’s despair and joy.

Alison is a writer of a weekly relationship column for a trendy newspaper in Philadelphia—“I feel I should point out that I became the kind of columnist I became before it was cliché, before the Suddenly Susan-ness of it all hit the culture full-force, before the whole thing became boring, silly, and obvious.” The fodder for her column is her relationship with Tom, meaning that the end of their relationship also means the end of her column. But not until after Alison indulges in a short fling with her new boss Henry who sees her as being the carefree girl she is not.

This affair is monumental on a couple levels. First, Henry is only the third man that Alison has ever slept with and his assumption of her carefree status throws her off kilter; so much so that she ends up storming into his office to ask about their relationship (you can imagine how well that turns out). Second, she is an evangelical Christian (albeit lapsed) and much of the emotional and psychological turmoil she processes is wrapped up in her desire to reclaim her faith.

At times, Alison feels constricted by her faith as it conflicts with her emotions and desires and constructs numerous gray areas in terms of her values. At other times though Alison’s faith provides a very real grounding for figuring out who she is, despite the love-hate relationship she has with it. It is ultimately Alison’s struggle to intertwine her quest for “the big love” with her quest for faith that gives her the perspective necessary to kick Tom out of her life for good and to embark on her own unique path.

Dunn, a columnist and one-time television writer for sitcoms "Murphy Brown" and "Spin City", has written an insightful first novel that has the interesting feel of numerous columns strung together. The writing pops off the page in equal doses of humor and wisdom. There are numerous pop culture references through out that are cleverly placed for maximum comedic effect (“toasting is the new prayer”) and provide a nice respite from Alison’s befuddling deliberations. The Big Love is a wonderful read, and Dunn has much to be proud of with the conflicted yet strong female character she has created in Alison Hopkins.

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