“I thought you were dead,” Stella says to Paul when he returns home from a bar, on page one of Pete Nelson’s new novel. Delivered by an aging, arthritic Labrador/Shepherd mix, the line displays the dry wit and dog logic that makes Stella and, by extension, much of this novel a delight.
At the center of the story is Paul Gustavson, a writer in Northampton, Mass., whom we follow over the course of a year while he pens Nature for Morons, deals with the fallout from his father’s stroke, and dates for the first time since a messy divorce. Much of the story unfolds in conversations (the best between Paul and Stella, more on that in a sec) and instant messaging exchanges; the “action” takes place in Paul’s head. Nelson does a fine job weaving the narrative so that while the end surprises, you can look back and recognize the necessary telltales in the fabric of the story.
Yes, Stella talks. And the conversations are so charming and matter-offact that it hardly seems worth asking from whence this special power comes. It might just be Paul’s creative projection.
In a typical exchange, Paul asks Stella, “If you could be a vegetable, what vegetable would you be?”
“Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”
“There’s been some debate. Why would you be a tomato?”
“To get next to all those hamburgers,” the dog says.
“But if you were a tomato, you wouldn’t want to eat hamburger.”
“Of course I would. Why would I change, just because I’m a tomato?”
Paul dissertates on human behavior (particularly his own self-destructive actions) for Stella, but her smart, simple questions expose the truth, including her sharp assessment of his love troubles — based on observation. “Don’t forget,” she says, “there were three of us in the room, not two.”
Although the love story of the title likely refers to a long-distance romance with a divorced would-be singer named Tamsen, the affaire de coeur that captured and held my attention was between a man and his dog. Paul and Stella are like an old married couple, in the best ways, sharing an abundance of tenderness and humor forged during 15 years together. In one of my favorite moments, Paul snuggles with a frightened Stella during a thunderstorm. In their cave under a blanket-topped kitchen table, he comforts her with the story of how humans and wolves first threw in together. If that’s not love, what is?