|It might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that Patricia Gaffney’s latest novel saved my marriage, but Mad Dash certainly motivated me to take a good, hard look to make sure I wasn’t taking it for granted. Gaffney’s intimate portrayal of an almost inadvertent marital separation is insightful and poignant, but fortunately it’s hilarious as well. Gaffney has delivered some gems in the past eight years since she transitioned from writing romance novels to women’s fiction, but this may be her finest work to date.
Free-spirited photographer Dash (née Dorothy, but she didn’t like the nickname “Dot”) and straight-laced history professor Andrew Bateman have made their “opposites attract” marriage work for almost 20 years. But with the recent death of Dash’s mother and their daughter’s departure for college, Dash is feeling increasingly unsettled and dissatisfied with life and, consequently, with Andrew. Personality traits that were once endearing are now annoying, especially her husband’s unwillingness to navigate office politics and his persistent hypochondria. The last straw comes when they find a stray puppy and Andrew insists his allergies preclude them from keeping it, even though he has no problem with the elderly deaf and blind dog he inherited from his father. Impulsively, Dash grabs the puppy and stalks out of their Washington home, heading for the small cabin the couple owns in northern Virginia.
At first, Dash and Andrew aren’t even sure this is a real separation, but as the days go on, Dash becomes more and more committed to her new living situation. Andrew consoles himself by emphasizing the peace and quiet he can find in his own home now that Dash’s disorder is gone. There might even be something exciting about their new status, including the possibility of passionate post-separation sex. But as time goes by, big and little incidents widen the gap between the Batemans. Long-held resentments fester, and angry words are spoken that can’t be taken back. Dash starts eyeing a local handyman with a certain amount of speculation, while Andrew finds himself pursued by a young, troubled colleague. Dash’s divorced best friend insists that all marriages are doomed to fail – “two people can’t be everything to each other forever, it’s just not possible.” So are Andrew and Dash better off apart? And if not, what will it take to reunite them?
Without being maudlin or resorting to melodrama, Gaffney portrays the Bateman’s marriage with unerring eye. Mad Dash contains very little action, and the novel wouldn’t work if the reader didn’t come to care so much for its protagonists, who narrate alternate chapters. Dash is the more obviously likeable one with her sunny, outgoing personality, but her refusal to see that the problems in the marriage aren’t all Andrew’s responsibility keeps her from being unrealistically perfect. Andrew seems like a stuffed shirt at first, but gradually through his chapters he comes into focus as an honorable, quiet person with a sly sense of humor who defied his autocratic father with his career path but has been reluctant to rock the boat since that point. The one chapter narrated by their daughter Chloe indicates that they have been warm, loving parents.
Gaffney unerringly nails the way that one impulsive act can uncover weaknesses neither partner would admit existed, and how words spoken in the heat of an argument can take on a life of their own. Things can deteriorate beyond repair quickly, because marriage is both our strongest and most fragile bond. I had a feeling that the Batemans would make it, but I was curious about how Gaffney would get them back together. In the end there are no gimmicks or easy answers, just the truth that although we are ultimately in this life alone, it helps to have someone to share the good times and the bad. In case this analysis makes it sound as if Mad Dash is a deadly, somber affair, don’t worry – there’s humor to be found too, even in some of the most uncomfortable moments.
Mad Dash left me feeling both anxious and reassured. A book that entertains yet also inspires is a rare find. I just finished reading a book by an author who offered lots of hollow platitudes such as Love Is All You Need, Love Lasts Forever and so on. Honestly, I found it much more romantic to read about the Batemans, who know that while true love is possible, it needs time and attention to endure.