If you’ve ever caught a glimpse of a former lover and let your mind travel down the “what if” path, however briefly, you’ll enjoy “The Stuff That Never Happened.” It’s the debut novel by Maddie Dawson, who captures the silent desperation of pinning for the excitement of the “bad boy” who got away when all of your friends think the good guy you married is God’s gift to wives.
Annabelle McKay, at 46, is well aware that she is the envy of the faculty spouses at the New Hampshire college where her husband is a big-wheel professor. Grant is solid and dependable. He’s not the type of husband who would leave her for a younger woman just as her upper arms are starting to go flabby and she and Grant are losing their biggest common denominator – their two kids. Besides, there’s still enough of a spark in their marriage that they schedule sex every week on the morning he doesn’t have an early class to teach. But Annabelle has never squelched the memories of the passionate affair she had 26 years ago that left wounds too deep to speak about. It’s that vow of silence between Annabelle and Grant that is the fat finger on Annabelle’s contentment scale. Dawson lets Annabelle tell her own story, and she does so in a voice that draws you in like a new friend who’s just starting to open up and confide.
Therein lies the real treat of this novel. Annabelle tells her life in two parallel story lines, the one that takes place in 2005, the present; and the one that set her on her present course in 1977. You watch the mature Annabelle wrestle with her emotions and her choices when she unexpectedly meets her old lover at a juncture when life’s possibilities seem to be opening up again. You see Annabelle at 20 as she is struggling to emerge from a dysfunctional family and chart her own course — with very little perspective and few emotional navigation aids.
Woven together, the stories are compelling in the way that celebrity divorces are: The central problem is as old as the human race, and the details are riveting as much for what they divulge about a couple’s private life as for the mirror they hold up to one’s own life. “The Stuff That Never Happened” will be the book you pass to a friend and say, “Let me know when you’ve read this. I want to know what you would have done.”
Dawson’s characters are insightfully drawn and convincingly flawed. Even the characters that only make cameo appearances are fully formed. Padgett, the grad-student trophy wife of Clark, a colleague of Grant’s, texts through the couple’s getting-to-know-you dinner at a restaurant. And when Clark announces that he’s taking a sabbatical so he and Padgett can travel the world, Dawson shows us his gum-revealing, fool-in-love grin, and says, “He puts his big bald forehead onto her unlined one, like a mind meld you see on Star Trek.” With just a few sentences, Dawson sketches a guy who’s very much like a guy you know at work and a woman one-third his age whose lack of apparent charm is a throwback to the very serious, Gloria Steinem wanna-be of the early seventies, only Padgett’s social consciousness is directed at saving the environment, not womankind.
Maybe you can tell: I thought this was a great read. It’s an astute people-watcher’s take on a timeless conundrum. It would make a great beach read. But if you take it on vacation, load up on sun screen. You’re not going to want to put it down.
By Kimberly C. Steffen, a writer and editor who lives in Connecticut. This is a “second look” review.