Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III

To quote John Irving*:

“Human beings are remarkable – at what we can learn to live with. If we couldn’t get strong from what we lose, and what we miss, and what we want and can’t have, then we couldn’t ever get strong enough, could we?” dirty love The crux of Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love** is what we want and can’t have – in love and in life. The (long) short story collection is set just north of Boston, in an old mill town. Although the stories are only loosely related, they all inhabit the same small world where life isn’t fair and you never get what you want (even if you thought you wanted it). In “Listen Closely As Our Options Have Changed”, after 25 years of marriage, a man discovers his wife’s infidelity. He reacts in the least mature way possible. In “Marla”, a lonely, innocent young woman finally begins to date, but loses herself to please a man. In “The Bartender”, a bartender/poet marries the woman of his dreams only to be unfaithful to her within a year. In the title novella, “Dirty Love”, a teenage girl is haunted by a bad decision, but hopes to earn the respect of her great-uncle and a man she met online.

Dirty Love is complex, melancholy, and lovely. Dubus equally captures the hope of small town respectability and the dingier layers of reality lurking beneath it. As the title implies, there are bits of dirty love (i.e. sordid sex, if you’re mind leans that way) and there are bits of dirty love. The collection focuses on neither one nor the other. There is plenty of sex, but Dubus presents it in such a frank and forthright way that there is no romantic or erotic appeal. There is sex on a bar, on a restaurant carpet, in dingy, grey snow. It is captured on Facebook and by a jilted spouse. There is also love, but it’s unequal and at times unkind. To earn love, in this collection, you must censor who you are.

I mean, that’s just not how you make conversation, and, I’m sorry, but that’s why you never get asked out – you always say what you really think.

Or, if you’ve ‘found’ love, you hold onto it even if you’re desperately unhappy.

He could not say he did not feel grief, this dark empty corridor inside him he seemed to be wandering down alone, but what could he do with this other feeling? That after forty-three years of hearing nearly daily of his shortcomings, it was a welcome respite to be left alone? How could he say that since that sudden January evening of last year, what he felt now was a dumbstruck sense of freedom for which, daily, he felt the need to apologize?

Dirty Love explores the way love can comfort, confound, and ruin a person at the same time. The stories examine careless decisions and patterns of behavior – if you cheat once are you destined to cheat again? It is an interesting mix between hopeful and hopeless and, in what’s sure to irritate many, is incredibly ambiguous. There are no resolutions – no conclusions are reached – the characters are left with their thoughts and the reader never learns of their fate. Does infidelity ruin two respective marriages? Is it okay to settle for companionship and comfort over love? Can you survive if you do so? In an age where digital content never really goes away, can you overcome unsavory sexual images plastered on the internet? These questions can never be answered (within the context of the story), but they can be pondered. If you’re looking for a gritty, gloomy, intelligent and beautiful look at love, read this. 4.75/5.

(It’s hard for me to rate something as 5/5 when it so wholly saddened me. I do still sincerely recommend it, but it’s not lighthearted. It’s a complex, real, empathetic exploration of the darker side of love.)

Are you willing to read something that’ll depress you? (In this case, you should.) Do you read short stories? I find short fiction to be a bit of a lost art form. Everyone wants a full novel – in depth characterization and complicated plots – but I enjoy short vignettes of life, love, and the human condition. Or sci-fi. Whatever the case may be.
Cardomom Cocktail There are many bar scenes within the stories (one quarter of the book is devoted to the plight of a bartender), so I am recommending a drink. The drink that stands out in the story is a boilermaker, but it’s not something I enjoy (though it does follow the old drinking order adage), so I am substituting a Cardamom Rose Cocktail. Isn’t it pretty? Although I generally find alcohol to be as pretty as an airport, this one is rather aesthetically pleasing.

PS- This is my 250th post!

*Or, if you want to get less literary and more musical, to quote Arctic Monkeys: I go crazy ’cause here isn’t where I wanna be / And satisfaction feels like a distant memory / And I can’t help myself / All I wanna hear her say is “Are you mine?”.
**I won, FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, a contest. This particular bookish contest was hosted by Goodreads. My prize soothed the cynic in me.

17 thoughts on “Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III

  1. First off, congrats on your 250th post! That’s awesome! And secondly, I might pick this one up just because I lived in the Boston area and my family is still there so I like books set in the area. Thanks for the review and depressing disclaimer!


    1. Thanks! He does a really good job of describing the seedier bars along the coast (especially during off-season). Both Dubus III and his father are among my favorite modern writers.


    1. Thanks (x2)! It’s an outstanding collection (though don’t look at the reviews on Goodreads before reading, they pissed me off for this particular title). Obviously this is not a go-to title for happily ever after. If that’s what you’re looking for, go read Nora Roberts.

      (None of that was directed towards you, of course, just the whiny reviewers on Goodreads – why couldn’t he tell me the ending and make it happy? Sigh, my whiny about it on a blog comment is so passive aggressive ;)).


  2. 250! Nice! And so much fun to win a prize! Best prize I ever won was when editor Betsy Lerner asked for book recommendations on her blog and out of an easy 100 suggestions, she chose mine! She sent me three books 🙂


    1. Thanks! I’ve never won a contest before, I was beginning to think I was cursed!

      I have to admit your prize is a bit more exciting than mine! It required effort, mine required clicking a Goodreads box. But…free book!


  3. Yay for the short story! (and Alice Munro won the Nobel today to boot). I find that I’m trying to incorporate them more into my reading (they’ve been missed for the past year or two). Perfect for subway rides, too.

    Just yesterday I passed on a book because I wasn’t in the mood for anything “depressing.” Not that I’m a person that falls in the ‘cheery category’ but, I think, having to deal with the stresses of every day, I am veering more and more away from that kind of writing (both fiction and non-fiction). It’s only recently I’ve become aware of it. Oh, if Freud could analyze our book choices.


    1. I was so excited when I woke up this morning and saw the announcement. I was even more excited that I serendipitously reviewed one of her collections a couple of weeks ago for two reasons. First, I can actually say I read her before she won the Nobel Prize. And second, because my blog stats for that particular review went crazy. Always good to get extra traffic with no extra effort. One of my favorite recent collections, though it’s a bit odd, is The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville. If you ever stumble across it, I’d highly recommend it.

      I go through phases. I’m not a naturally happy person, it takes work for me to be particularly chipper and I find excessive social interaction to be draining (why I chose to be a librarian is a mystery to me). Sometimes I can handle depressing books and sometimes I can’t. I read this one without researching it and it took my a full week to get over the bleakness of this particular title. As much as I enjoyed it, I don’t know that I could read it again (‘Marla” particularly devastated me). This very idea is exactly why I can’t bring myself to read The Book Thief, despite everyone saying it’s exceptional.

      I wouldn’t even want to know what Freud thought of me…(okay, I would).


      1. Sometimes, I do reach for the more “depressing” (for lack of a better term) and that weeklong description of malaise you gave is something that, creatively, I feed off–particularly for poetry or texts that are more descriptive and meditative.

        Congrats on the uptick in blog hits. That’s great. The Guardian also has some fun facts about Alice Munro:


    1. One of my favorite quotes comes from House of Sand and Fog:

      Dat’s what they say of this cauntry back home, Kath: ‘America, the land of milk and honey.’ Bot they never tell you the milk’s gone sour and the honey’s stolen.

      I think he excels equally in both long and short form, even his memoir is great (Townie).


  4. Hmmm… not normally into short stories (why? Why aren’t I?) But I might like this collection – becuase sad and because of your specific score. I feel ‘undecided’ when I give something half a star but you’ve broken all boundaries now and I’m going crazy with the decimal places.


  5. I don’t read short fiction as often as I’d like because I’m usually only in the mood for a novel plus I always find it infinitely more difficult to review short fiction for some reason. My all-time favorite short fiction collection is The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall. I’ve been in a book slump for the past few days… maybe I should try out a short fiction to get me out of my rut. Congrats again on #250. 🙂


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