Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook
(Viking, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-670-03106-2
****
After the shockingly hilarious first scene of her sophomore novel, I wondered if Claire Cook could keep the momentum going. Fortunately, Must Love Dogs contains at least two other superbly crafted scenes after the opening. In fact, this story of a 40-year old divorcee who decides to re-enter the dating world is full of both grand and modest treasures that make it a fully engaging novel.

After much encouragement from her large Irish family, Sarah Hurlihy answers an personals ad in the local newspaper from an “honest, hopelessly romantic old-fashioned gentleman.” Imagine her surprise when she enters the coffee house to meet her date and discovers her widowed father waiting for her, eager to jump-start his own love life.

Well! After that humiliation (which Sarah’s 2 sisters and 3 brothers find hysterical, must to her mortification), it’s amazing that Sarah is willing to try again. But armed with her brother’s rambunctious Saint Bernard puppy, the erroneously-named Mother Teresa, Sarah agrees to meet the man who answers her own ad seeking someone special who “must love dogs.” Sarah also learns that dates come from unlikely sources, once a woman makes up her mind to get a social life. She’s attracted to the father of one of her students at the trendy preschool where she teaches. She pursues a seemingly charming man she meets outside the coffee house. And the responses to her personals ad pile up on her voice mail…

It’s a miracle that Sarah actually has time to date. Her father’s own dating adventures create an amazing amount of trouble for the Hurlihy family, as do the marital problems of Sarah’s brother and the stormy rebellion of her teenage niece. Her suitors quickly learn that they have to reckon with the entire Hurlihy clan if they’re going to court Sarah. At the same time, Sarah learns that while her relatives can be a burden, they can also provide invaluable insight (sometimes unintentionally) into her quest to sort out her priorities for a strong, long-term relationship.

Sarah is a memorable heroine and narrator, just a shade cynical but hopeful as well. Her attempts at finding a boyfriend come off as a bit desperate but her interactions with her family and students prove her to be a competent, caring woman (even if she does think The Brady Bunch holds the solutions to all of life’s important issues).

The Boston South Shore setting and Irish-Catholic family dynamics feel authentic, no doubt because of the author’s own background. It’s a pleasant surprise to find a family who, despite their quirks, are a close, loving group without too much angst or baggage.

Readers should be warned that Must Love Dogs is no sentimental romance novel. None of the men Sarah dates would be mistaken for Prince Charming, and although she does finally reach a tentative happy ending with one of them, he has his own idiosyncrasies. There are no guarantees of forever, just hope that this is the man with whom she can try to work out a decent relationship.

Full of colorful family, disastrous dates, and of course several dogs of various temperaments, Must Love Dogs is highly recommended. Apparently Cook’s first novel, Ready to Fall, is told entirely through e-mail messages from the heroine to her next-door neighbor. I’m off to the library to find it, with the hope that Claire Cook has more goodies up her sleeve.

--Susan Scribner


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