In Print

When a dog wins your heart

By Hermine Hull - May 25, 2006

"Marley and Me" by John Grogan. William Morrow, 2005. $21.95. 304 pages.

One day early in the winter I passed the shelf of new non-fiction in the library and saw this book. On the cover was a yellow lab puppy wearing a red collar. Marley looked just like my yellow lab puppy, Talley, the day I picked her up at the MSPCA in Edgartown, now almost three years ago. Talley (then named "Daisy") was sitting quietly by Jen Morgan's feet looking at me as I walked in the door, her head tilted in the same expectant manner. So I was instantly attracted to this book, as I had fallen in love at first sight with my puppy all that time ago.

John Grogan has written a beautiful and very funny story about the puppy he and his wife adopted and loved for 13 years. Even if you don't love a dog, the book is well written and entertaining. But if you do, I promise you will be entranced and charmed, and nostalgic about every dog you have ever loved.

The story of Marley is also the story of the Grogans' marriage and a chronicle of their life together. Both writers, they were working in southern Florida, he as a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, she as a feature writer at the Palm Beach Post. They were newly married and decided to get a dog, a Labrador retriever, as "good practice" before having children. Marley was certainly a handful. But as with most things in life, one adapts.

From the start Marley was a loving and devoted companion. He was protective, loyal, naughty, neurotic, willful, affectionate, slobbery, and increasingly large - 97 pounds at full adult weight. He resisted training; indeed, he was expelled from Puppy School after a wonderfully comic series of transgressions that reminded me of my experience with my first lab, Leo, at the New Haven YMCA when I was in art school. Marley was the alpha dog in the Grogan household, although he did finally respond to hard training after the children were born. By "hard training," I mean that he was eventually able to walk without pulling on a leash, but getting him there required great strength of will and purpose. Marley remained always an exuberant presence, true to himself.

I guess part of the charm of this book is how graphic its images are, of Marley in all his life stages, and how each reader can bring their own reminiscences and identify with the story. I am grateful not to ever have had a dog who belly-flopped into a swimming pool at warp speed or tore the house apart whenever there was a thunder storm. But we have had Zoe, a 90-pound Lab-Shepherd cross, who managed to fold herself into as little as she could be under my bedside table every time a storm approached. All of our dogs have been gentle with children. Often, through our work, they were the first introduction many of our clients' children had to a dog. They were petted and rubbed, rolled on, and fed, as was Marley with the three Grogan children, Patrick, Conor, and Colleen. He was their protector and guardian. One funny scene in the book described the young Grogan parents out in their back yard with the baby in a carrier and Marley lying with his head across the baby. The house blocked the parents from the street, surprising a pair of passers-by who saw only a large dog seemingly minding the baby.

Marley even had a bit part in a movie. His essential joie de vivre shook up the set, but he came through with flying colors and flying fur. The entire crew was smitten.

Of course, there were sad times, too. As their family grew and their neighborhood changed, they (and Marley) moved a couple of times, changing jobs and scene. The end of the story was not unexpected as the final chapters documented the slowing down, then gradual illness and death of this beloved companion. The loss of a pet is devastating no matter how humane. John Grogan's description of Marley's demise was gently done.

And in the final chapter, again not unexpected, Jenny Grogan was found reading the classified section of the local newspaper, circling ads for yellow Lab puppies. No matter how much we grieve for our pets, our homes and hearts never feel quite right without them. A loving heart always can find room for another go.

Hermine Hull is an artist, a dog lover, and the West Tisbury correspondent for The Times.