This first novel by Elizabeth Wrenn marks an auspicious beginning. It is a gentle, feel-good novel, but it is not lightweight. The narrative includes an unusual twist. Around the Next Corner seems real, and its characters, quite amazingly, relatively happy. There are no murders, no horrendously dysfunctional families, no suicides. No one goes to jail; no one becomes drug-addicted.
Around the Next Corner is a tender story of an unfulfilled middle-aged woman, Deena Munger, married with three children, who discovers
that she has been taken for granted for too long. She has not spent enough time trying to work out who she is or what she wants. She has not made a painting in decades. “When had I… disappeared?” she wonders one day. “Somewhere along the line, a cloak of invisibility had dropped down and covered me from head to toe. It wasn’t just here in the mall, I realized. I was invisible in the grocery store, in my neighborhood, to my family. When had this happened?”
Typical story, yes? Not exactly, in Wrenn’s competent hands. Deena takes an unusual and daring move: for her mid-life change, she takes on a Labrador puppy, Heloise, to train for K-9 Eyes for the Blind. (As research for this book, the author and her family raised a puppy, Lucca, for Guide Dogs for the Blind.) She has never raised a dog on her own, and her family is not keen on the intrusion. “It wasn’t that Neil [her doctor husband, who is far too busy] disliked dogs; he loved Rocky and Fordy [Deena’s parents’ dogs]. When we went to the farm, he was often out throwing a stick or taking them for walks down to the lake. He explained that he didn’t want to own a dog because ‘ dogs tie you down.’ Like a wife, two teenagers at home, a son at college, and a thriving medical practice didn’t. He was also fond of saying, ‘The only good dog is someone else’s dog.’ “
Yet, after an initial rough start at puppy training 101, the dog and the larger-than-expected related responsibilities help center Deena and make her days more satisfying. Heloise even brings Deena new friends and a flirtation or two. And, as Deena and Neil seem to be spending less and less time together, the dog and related group meetings to discuss the puppies’ progress fill in a huge gap.
Of course, the dog is adorable. But as she will assist a blind person to live independently, Heloise must be raised strictly to avoid temptations that most dogs cannot overcome.
Like all puppies, she has a wild and comical spirit. “We met on the corner, Heloise greeting me with perked–up ears, paws caked with mud, delight in her eyes and a single bedraggled daffodil hanging from her mouth. I picked her up, slid the flower from her teeth, and tucked her under my arm, muddy paws and all. I stepped around the corner. It could’ve been worse. She could have used a bulldozer to excavate the side flower bed.”
As Deena’s role as a puppy raiser takes on much more focus, and as she becomes more confident about this role, her marriage seems to be careening toward divorce. Although this is not what Deena wants, she sees no way to make things better.
The book ends both expectedly and unexpectedly. Deena proves to have learned a great deal: she is a mature, loving person open to and ready for big changes. This is a delightful first novel, and I hope the writer graces us with other surprising works in future years.