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Meeting the Dog of Your Dreams : DOGS, DREAMS & MEN by Joan F. Kaufman (W.W. Norton: $16.95; 234 pp.)

June 19, 1988|Sara E. Melzer

Ann, a 33-year-old editor in Manhattan, has found the dog of her dreams in Joan Kaufman's witty first novel, "Dogs, Dreams & Men." A bichon frise named Emma Bovary showers her with love and attention, following her from room to room, her eyes continually fixed on her master like a compass pointing north. Emma is a tough act to follow, and Ann has yet to meet the man of her dreams.

Emma acts as go-between in Ann's relations with men. While walking Emma in Riverside park, she meets Drew, an egocentric rock singer, walking his dog, Rover. They engage in typical park chat--who's your vet? how long did housebreaking take?--and they are launched on a quasi-affair. After Drew leaves her for another woman, Emma gives Ann a reason to be in the park where she knows she'll encounter Drew and Rover.

Rejected by Drew, Ann is drawn to her co-worker, Malin. He works his way into her affection by showing great interest in Emma. "I almost reach out to pet (Malin) with exactly the same measure of affection he is demonstrating toward the dog I love."

The more Ann depends on Emma, the more terrified she becomes of losing her. The same dream recurs nightly, all variations on a theme: how to protect Emma from harm. She calls up the woman from whom she got Emma--just in case anything happens to her. Ann says, "I will never understand how you knew that Emma would turn out to be exactly the dog I wanted."

"Experience. I think of myself as a matchmaker. I am pretty good at it, if I do say so myself."

" Very good at it. Maybe you should try human matchmaking. I'll be your first client. Do you think you could find me a man who suits me as well as Emma?" She laughs. "You've never met my husband, have you, or you wouldn't ask that. We would all be better off if I stuck with dogs."

Ann would also be better off if she stuck with dogs. She chooses men who treat her like a dog. And she acts like one too. The men in Ann's life are not well drawn, and this reader found it difficult to understand why Ann was so attracted to them.

Ann is like her dog's namesake--Emma Bovary, a dreamer who projects romantic fantasies onto the mundane world around her. On Valentine's Day, Ann playfully asks Emma if "she remembered to buy me a box of chocolates. She sleeps. I tell her that not since the beginning of all time has anyone loved a dog more than I love her. 'Greater love,' I whisper, 'hath no other dog owner for any other dog.' Emma sleeps through my cliches." Her relation to Emma does border on the cliched, but is often rescued by Ann's understanding of this and her playful, ironic distance from it. In some sense, Emma seems to sleep through much of the novel since we get little sense of her personality; she lacks dog reality. We know her through Ann's hopes, needs and fears, which she places on Emma.

But Ann's need for Emma is moving; her awareness of this need is often sharp and leads to insightful reflections on human-dog relations. "Dogs, Dreams & Men" is at its best when describing the special rituals that characterize human-dog relations--the daily walks, the park culture, the dog-training schools, etc. The novel is least interesting when describing the men who have even less reality than the dog, and they should take a long walk.

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