“The Dog Who Danced” by Susan Wilson. St. Martin’s Press. 320 pp., $24,99 hardcover. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven.
Susan Wilson has found her sweet spot. In 2010, the Oak Bluffs author made The New York Times best-seller list with “One Good Dog,” a redemptive story of a man fallen from grace and a discarded pit bull who find and nurture each other.
The dog who dances is Mack, a Sheltie trained by his owner, Justine Meade, a 43-year woman for whom Mack is a centering influence in a very scattered life. The title derives from Canine Freestyle dance competitions (see YouTube) in which Mack and Justine compete to musical accompaniment.
Ms. Wilson is a good writer, and this seventh novel is richly plotted. Justine has been a wanderer since leaving home 20 years ago with her son, and her travels have taken her to Washington state where she is chasing yet another will-of-the-wisp attempt at a happy life. Her teenage son left her along the way, seven years ago, to settle with his Dad in New York.
When we meet Justine, she has purchased a ride for $300 with an over-the-road trucker traveling from Washington state to Boston. She and Mack are bound for her New Bedford hometown to see her dying father.
Along the way, the trucker abandons her at a truck stop and hundreds of miles later, discovers Mack in the back seat and boots him out on the Mass Pike. Mack is found by the Parmalees, a middle-aged couple still rigid with grief seven years after the suicide of their teenage daughter.
There are additional sub plots in this saga of journeying and seeking and Mack plays a central role in the protagonists’ searches. Ms. Wilson has developed her characters artfully and sculpts a convincing shape of their emotional struggles.
Justine is torn between her “duty” to her cold, distant father (and a Stepmother From Hell) and finding Mack, the only being she’s ever been able to count on for unconditional love.
In “One Good Dog,” the canine protagonist speaks in the first-person. In “Dance,” Mack is rendered in the third-person. In addition to his role in the novel, Mack also serves as a sort of Greek chorus of ancient theater, a device used to provide insight and nuance into the human characters on stage.
Drama builds as Mack helps the Parmalees to heal. Will Justine find some peace in her dysfunctional family relationships? Will she find Mack? And will Artie, the rascally trucker, get the beating he richly deserves?
You gotta read it to find out. Along the way, you will find the increasing range of craftsmanship in Ms. Wilson’s work.
In a phone interview from her Oak Bluffs home, Ms. Wilson sounded happy. “I think I have found my niche in the dog stories,” she said. “The dog in ‘One Good Dog’ was written in the first person. In ‘Dance,’ Mack is clearly a dog, seeing the world through his perspective.
“It’s a completely different kind of writing. Writing in the third person forces you to work harder. You get fewer pages at a time,” she continued. She is more comfortable, however.
When talking about her past work she said, “I was writing relationship novels, not really romance novels, but I was slotted into the romance genre. I feel I’ve broken out of that mold with books that speak to both men and women.” One of her books, “Beauty,” was made into a movie for television in 1996.
Ms. Wilson and her husband, David, are the parents of two daughters, grandparents of two granddaughters, and the adoptive parents of Bonnie, a terrier of apparently sketchy origins, whose photo appears on SusanWilsonWrites.com.
Ms. Wilson is at work on her next book. With a working title, “The Dog Who Saved Me,” it is a novel of a 90-year-old World War II vet, who flashes back to his Dickensian childhood and to his experiences as a dog handler in war.
That’s to come. Available now, “The Dog Who Danced” is a great book to read and think about if you like dogs. Or if you like people.