Rescuing yourself when you drop everything to rescue your best friend and her therapy dog (Wisconsin, California, Utah; present-day): Ann Garvin opens her new, sparkling contemporary novel with a Finnish proverb that asks us to consider whether “Happiness is a place between too much and too little”?
“I’m Ann and I think everything is funny and a little bit sad. I write about women, with a good sense of humor, who do too much in a world that asks too much from them. I write about you and me.”https://anngarvin.net
Her three female characters – Katie, Samantha, and Holly – evoke emotions like her Feel-Better Blog, Come Sit By Me. Katie is the “glue” that brings Sam and Holly back together twenty-five years after the once tight threesome, college roommates, graduated. The two ex-friends remain best friends with Katie. Sam, our narrator, says Katie is “the warmest of all,” self-deprecating as she’s the one who carries “enough tissues to wipe up a nuclear spill.” For some unknown reason, Holly disowned her, which becomes clear towards the ending.
The two ex-best friends will do anything for Katie back in the hospital as her ovarian cancer has returned. Sam has a “dish tantrum” when Katie breaks the news to her in the opening chapter. Racing to Katie’s bedside, she feels jealous when she gets there after Holly, as if she’s second best. Suffering from “chronic niceness” – a “Try Hard” person – and someone whose conflict adverse, she can’t afford to get overstressed because she also suffers from a “weird” sleeping disorder that causes her to suddenly drop into a “hypersomnia-reset-nap” to refresh, followed by caffeination. Holly used to be fun, but now this lawyer thrives on being bossy. The last thing Sam needs is her unexplainable antagonism and “negativity.” Garvin knows how women tick.
Sam’s an occupational therapist, comfortable in medical situations. She’s also a “Try Hard” person with animals who understands how a dog can be a therapeutic companion. Garvin’s thirty-years as a registered nurse and experience teaching wellness classes at the University of Wisconsin – where the novel is set and where she lives – make their way into this friendship novel, which is so much more than that.
The author also teaches creative writing at Drexel University and taught at other MFA programs, so she also has a way with words that jump off the pages – humorous, whip smart, heart-tugging – to turn a too-little happiness medical story into something approaching too much. Katie is blessed with the unbreakable bonds of two best friends, and possesses the grace and wisdom to appreciate that. She’s the best friend we’d be blessed to have. Someone who epitomizes kindness, a word that pops up often.
Katie has only one request of her two best friends: please bring back her unconditional loving companion. A 100-pound, wagging tail, face-licking dog who’ll save her again. Her needs echo the words of Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, who recently wrote about the surge in dog adoptions during the pandemic of loneliness and despair: “In a time of crisis, when people feel things are uncertain and people feel isolated or scared, to be able to bond with an animal is so important.”
Katie’s animal is a “cancer-sniffing,” lovable Great Pyrenees dog, “a breed that evoked moving a mountain,” ironically named Peanuts, named for Garvin’s cute, little dog. She needs him now, more than ever.
Peanuts was supposed to be non-negotiable during her divorce, but her revengeful, viscerally unlikeable ex-husband Jeff snatched him away when he moved to California with his new wife Misty. The catch is Peanuts isn’t even at their Culver City home but left at an unknown dog shelter likely not to keep a high-maintenance dog with diabetes too long. The other catch is Peanuts is very nervous about cars, so the only one way to transport him is in an old VW bus, also taken.
How can Sam and Holly spend one minute trapped in the same vehicle for 2,300 miles? How can Sam drive alone, which she wants to do, with her sleep issue? How can Holly stand to be with her? She too wants to do this alone, but can’t handle anything medical and is not a dog person. For the sake of their dear friend, they agree to do it together anyway.
Sam is also someone you’d want in your corner. A “solitary helium balloon with no one to hold on to the string,” after eighteen years of being “invisible” single-parenting Maddie after her husband died before she was born, she has a lot to lose headed into Holly’s unrelenting bullying, but she’s selfless. Holly, the only one with a life partner, Rosie, has something to risk too: Rosie is about to become a mother, but feels she must take this one-week journey away from her. When you learn why Holly is the way she is, you may want her in your corner too.
In Garvin’s hands, the iconic bus that symbolized peace and freedom in the sixties counterculture movement still does in the sense that Katie’s peace and Peanuts’ freedom have turned into a “dog-rescue bus.” With charming surprises along the way.
The universe of women this novel will appeal to (some men might benefit from the insight into how women think and feel) includes: women who know what it means, or wish they did, to have a best friend you’d trust with your life, someone you can count on for better or worse, particularly when men have let you down, badly. Women who know the sweetness of happiness and the depths that can fall. Women who find it so hard to stand up for themselves. Friends who make us feel good, others who drain us. Lonely women. “Love that felt like love” is a romantic thread that strings the sad parts together. Dog lovers everywhere. People whose lives depend on, or have been made immeasurably better by an assistive-therapy dog. Men – in this story a doctor and a veterinarian – who’ll charm your heart. All the texters who want instant communication and gratification. Empty-nesters as Maddie is about to graduate and fly her wings. People who come out West and feel the warmth of the glorious sun as if they were “slathered in butter.” Women dealing with acceptance of their sexual preferences.
The list goes on: Everyone who’s had someone dear to them diagnosed with a life-threatening illness who could benefit from a patient’s wisdom: “We live our lives doing stupid things like gossiping when we should be spending all our days planting flowers.”
Katie, depicted as a “fresh squirt of friendship Febreze,” offers this spot-on analysis of how it feels to have a special friend or one you’ve split from:
“When girls are friends it was like a beautiful bouquet of funny flowers eternally watered by their togetherness. When the friendship failed, it was an ice storm on a hot-house plant.”