|Leslie Schnur may be a former Editor in Chief for Delacorte Books, but she writes like a first-time novelist, proving that editing and writing are two very discrete skills. The Dog Walker takes an intriguing premise and drowns it in slapstick humor and awkward writing. Ultimately, the dogs in the story come off as much more sympathetic and complex than the human hero and heroine.
At least the titular subject of the novel is closer to my own middle age than the average Chick Lit naïf. Thirty-five year old Nina Shepard is a professional dog-walker, much to the dismay of her mother, who can’t understand why Nina left a prestigious but stressful job in the publishing business over a year ago. But as Nina tells a nosy New York pedestrian, at $14 per walk, multiplied by sixteen different dogs who need to be walked several times a day, she nets more than two thousands dollars a week – in cash.
But the money isn’t the driving force behind Nina’s current profession. First of all, she loves the dogs, appreciating their diverse personalities, and paying special attention to those who are neglected by their overachieving yuppie owners. Secondly, Nina is a snoop. She gets a thrill out of looking through the apartments of her clients and learning intimate details about their lives. And what she has learned about Daniel Maguire, owner of the lovable but unfortunately named Siddhartha, has made her fall in love with him. Although she’s never met Daniel, she can tell from her prying that he meets all of the items on her Ideal Man wish list.
Then, after months of walking Sid without encountering his owner, she suddenly starts running into Daniel (literally in many cases) and realizes that the real thing is even better – although strangely different than – her fantasies. She can’t possibly tell him how she knows so much about him already. But Nina doesn’t realize that Daniel Maguire has a few secrets of his own. Although he is attracted to his pretty but strange dog walker, he can’t allow himself to become involved with her.
When we first meet Nina, she is taking a bath in Daniel’s apartment, having bribed the doorman to serve as her lookout. She’s supposed to be quirky and interesting, but instead she’s just plain creepy. With an emotionally distant father and neurotic mother, her snooping may be an attempt to find intimacy without having to interact with other people, but that doesn’t excuse what is basically illegal behavior. Although she is “cured” by the end of the novel, it’s still difficult to empathize with her. Daniel fares slightly better; he’s a nerdy but endearing beta hero (my favorite brand), but keeping his significant secret from Nina once he realizes he likes her seems unjustifiable.
Schnur has some good ideas, but her inexperience shows. Her humor is forced and corny, she relies on slapstick way too often, and her writing is sometimes clumsy, such as the use of the phrase “and then” three times in the same paragraph. Her plot twists are clichéd, including a groaner of a scene between a neglected child and oblivious mother, whose relationship is miraculously solved in one interaction with Nina.
The best part of the book is the canine one. Schnur is obviously a dog lover, and she provides an accurate and heart-warming portrayal of Nina’s client dogs and her own lovable mutt Sam. The thought of a small woman wearing shorts and hiking boots with eleven dogs leading her towards the park is rather awe-inspiring, as is Nina’s uncanny ability to place the dogs in just the right order so they don’t fight among themselves. You can’t help cheering at the book’s climax, which proves that every dog has its day, as well as the right owner.
When you finish a book feeling that the dogs have a better chance of a long-term happy ending than the humans, something is not quite right. Schnur’s website indicates that she is working on her second novel; let’s hope it avoids the rookie mistakes of her debut.