The Big Love

A Novel


By Sarah Dunn

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Hilarious and heartbreaking, combining the emotional incisiveness of Jane Austen with the up-to-the-minute frankness of “Sex and the City,” Dunn’s latest work will be the passing must-read novel of the summer.


Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Dunn

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Little, Brown and Company

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First eBook Edition: July 2004

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

ISBN: 978-0-7595-1186-6


TO BE FAIR TO HIM, THERE IS PROBABLY NO WAY THAT TOM could have left that would have made me happy. As it turns out, I'm in no mood to be fair to him, but I will do my best to be accurate. It was the last weekend in September. We were having a dinner party. Our guests were about to arrive. I ran out of Dijon mustard, which I needed for the sauce for the chicken, and so I sent my boyfriend, Tom—my "live-in" boyfriend, Tom, as my mother always called him—off to the grocery store to get some. "Don't get the spicy kind," was, I'm pretty sure, what I said to him right before he left, because one of the people coming over was my best friend, Bonnie, who happened to be seven months pregnant at the time, and spicy food makes Bonnie sweat even more than usual, and I figured that the last thing my dinner party needed was an enormous pregnant woman with a case of the flop sweats. It turned out, though, that that was not the last thing my dinner party needed. The last thing my dinner party needed was what actually happened: an hour after he left, Tom called from a pay phone to tell me to go ahead without him, he wasn't coming back, he didn't have the mustard, and oh, by the way, he was in love with somebody else.

And we had company! I was raised in such a way that you didn't do anything weird or impolite or even remotely human when you had company, which is the only way I can explain what I did next. I calmly poked my head into the living room and said, "Bonnie, can you come into the kitchen for a second?"

Bonnie waddled into the kitchen.

"Where's Tom?" Bonnie said.

"He's not coming," I said.

"Why not?" she said.

"I don't know," I said.

"What do you mean, you don't know?"

"He said he's not coming home. I think he just broke up with me."

"Overthe phone? That's impossible," Bonnie said. "What were his exact words?"

I told her.

"Oh my God, he said that?" she said. "Are you sure?"

I burst into tears.

"Well, that is completely unacceptable," Bonnie said. She hugged me hard. "It's unforgivable."

And it was unforgivable, truly it was. What made it unforgivable, as far as I was concerned, was not merely that Tom had ended a four-year-long relationship with no warning, or that he had done so over the telephone, or even that he had done it in the middle of a dinner party, but also this: the man had hung up before I had a chance to say so much as a single word in reply. That, it seemed to me, was almost inconceivable. What made it unforgivable as far as Bonnie was concerned was that she was sure the whole thing was nothing more than a ploy of Tom's to keep from having to propose to me anytime soon. She actually articulated this theory while we were still hugging, thinking it would calm me down. "Men are trying to avoid getting married," Bonnie said to me. "It doesn't look fun to them." She stroked my hair. "Their friends who are married look beatendown."

As if on cue, Bonnie's husband Larry walked into the kitchen with a striped dishrag tucked into the waistband of his pants, carrying two plates of chicken marsala. Larry was very proud of his work with the chicken. When Tom hadn't shown up on time with the mustard, Larry came up with the marsala concept, and made it by picking the mushrooms out of the salad. One thing I will tell you about Larry is that he cheated on Bonnie when they were dating, he cheated on her left and right in fact, but now here he was, father of two, maker of chicken marsala, the very picture of domestic tranquillity. He was beaten down, maybe; but he was beaten down and faithful.

"Tom's not coming," Bonnie said to Larry. "He says he's in love with somebody else."

"Who is he in love with?" Larry asked.

I knew who he was in love with, of course. I hadn't even bothered to ask. He was in love with Kate Pearce. And I knew it! I knew it! Bonnie knew it too—I could tell by the look on her face. Bonnie and I had been conferring on the subject of Tom's old college girlfriend Kate for quite some time, actually—ever since she had invited Tom out for the first of what would turn out to be a series of friendly little lunches, an event which incidentally happened to coincide with Bonnie's acquisition of a Hands Free telephone headset. I mention the Hands Free telephone headset only because once she got it, pretty much all Bonnie wanted to do was talk on the phone.

"Tom started doing sit-ups last night during Nightline," I told Bonnie during one of our phone calls. "Do you think that means anything?"

"Probably not," Bonnie said.

"I don't think a person all of a sudden starts doing sit-ups one day for no reason," I said.

"A few weeks ago Rocky was on TNT, and the next day Larry set up his weight-lifting bench in the garage, so it could be nothing."

"Did he say who?" Larry asked me. He put the chicken marsala down on the kitchen counter. "Did he tell you who he's in love with?"

"He's in love with Kate Pearce," I said. There was something incredibly painful about saying that sentence out loud. I sat down at the kitchen table and quickly amended it: "At least, he thinks he's in love with her."

"It's probably just a fling," said Bonnie.

"Is that allowed?" said Larry.

"Of course it's not allowed," Bonnie said. "I just mean, maybe it'll blow over."

"You've never seen her," I said. "She's beautiful."

"You're beautiful," Bonnie said, and then she reached across the table and patted my hand, which had the effect of making me feel not beautiful at all. Nobody ever pats a beautiful person's hand when they tell them that they're beautiful. It's just not necessary.

My friend Cordelia came into the kitchen to see what was going on, and I took one look at her and burst into tears again. Cordelia burst into tears, too, and I got up from the table and we stood there on the gray linoleum for what seemed like forever, hugging each other the way you do when there is a dead relative involved. It wasn't until much later that I found out that Cordelia, at that moment, thought there actually was a dead relative involved, and if she had known the true state of affairs she wouldn't have cried nearly as much. She is very philosophical about matters of the heart, philosophical in the way that it's only possible to be if you have been married once already and have absolutely no intention of doing so ever again. Cordelia was married to Richard for just under two years. They had what they deemed the usual problems, so they tried the usual solution: they went into therapy together. In the open, mutually accepting atmosphere fostered by their marriage counselor, Richard confessed to Cordelia that he was into amateur pornography. Cordelia thought, okay, not an ideal situation perhaps, but human sexuality is a complicated thing, and she could keep an open mind about her husband's little peccadilloes. Thus emboldened, Richard went on to make what would turn out to be a pivotal clarification—he was, it turned out, in amateur pornography—and Cordelia realized that her mind was not that open.

"Well, he can't break up with you over the phone," Cordelia said, after Bonnie told her what had happened. "You live together. You own a couch together."

"I've never told you this before," Bonnie said to me, "but I've always hated that couch."

"Tom picked it out," I said. This made me start crying again. "I didn't want him to think that moving in with me meant he wouldn't get to pick out couches anymore."

"That couch," Bonnie said to Larry, "is why I don't let you pick out couches."

Shortly after that, Bonnie went out into the living room and sent the rest of the guests home. Then she and Larry cleaned up the kitchen so I wouldn't have to wake up to a big pile of dirty dishes. Then Cordelia tucked me into bed with a bottle of wine. I told them I wanted to be alone, and the three of them finally left.

You should probably know that my first thought after I hung up the phone with Tom was that the thing with the ring was probably a mistake. What had happened was this: some months before, I happened upon a picture of an engagement ring I liked in a magazine, and I'm ashamed to tell you that I cut it out, and I'm even more ashamed to tell you that I did, in fact, slip it into Tom's briefcase while he was in the bathroom taking a shower. I did not expect him to run out the next day and buy the ring. I thought it was information he might want to have on file at some indeterminate time in the future. When Larry asked Bonnie what kind of engagement ring she'd like, she said she didn't want a solitaire, she wanted something different, and he said fine, different, I can do that, and Bonnie had a sudden flash of what he might come up with on his own—Larry being a man who once staple-gunned two old brown towels over his bedroom window and left them hanging there for four years—so she drew a picture on a cocktail napkin of a wide band of channel-set diamonds, and she wrote down the words platinum and size six and BIG and SOON. Larry dutifully took the napkin to a jeweler, and now Bonnie has on her finger something that looks like a very sparkly lug nut.

Of course, it's possible I'm putting too much emphasis on the whole business with the ring, but I tend to zero in on one detail and skip over everything else. I always have. I took a life drawing class in college, and at the end of the first two-hour session the only thing I had on my sketchpad was an exquisite rendering of the model's gigantic uncircumcised penis. But, well: Obviously I shouldn't have put the picture of that ring in Tom's briefcase. Obviously I should have put my foot down about the Kate stuff from the very beginning. I see that all clearly now. It just never entered my mind that Tom would actually have an affair! That's a lie. It entered my mind constantly, but whenever I brought it up Tom would assure me I was being crazy. "I can't live this way," he'd say to me. "If you don't trust me, maybe we should just end this now," he'd say to me. And he'd be so calm and cool and logical that I'd think: He's right, this is my stuff, this is my paranoia, this is happening because my father left when I was five, I was in an Oedipal stage, I have an irrational fear of abandonment, and I need to get over it. And then I'd be hit by a thought like, "Don't crush the sparrow, hold it with an open hand; if it comes back to you it's yours, if it doesn't, it never was." And I'd be fine, in a real Zen state, and then I'd try to remember where the sparrow thing came from, which would make me think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's TheLittle Prince even though there is actually no connection beyond a sort of dippy adolescent obviousness, which would make me think of Tom's most cherished possession—a dippy hand-painted Little Prince T-shirt made for him in college by Kate, the same Kate he was busy lunching with—and I'd be right back where I started.

"Listen," I said to Tom during one of our discussions about Kate. "I just don't feel comfortable with you having lunch with your old girlfriend all the time."

"I'm capable of being friends with a person I used to go out with," Tom said. "You're still friends with Gil."

"First of all, I'm not still friends with Gil," I said. "Second of all, Gil is gay, so even if I were still friends with him, it wouldn't count, because he's not interested in having sex with me. When he was having sex with me he wasn't interested in having sex with me."

"Kate has a boyfriend," Tom said. I rolled my eyes. "She and Andre live together," he said. I stifled a snort. "I'm not going to have this conversation anymore," he said, and then he left to go play squash.

Not that all this fighting did me any good. He just kept on having lunch with her. He even wanted me to have lunch with her! He gave her my work number and everything. "Kate's going to call you next week. She wants to have lunch with you," he said. I spent an entire weekend mulling over my plan. I decided I wouldn't call her back. I wouldn't answer my phone and when I got her message I'd just never call her back and she'd get the picture and then do you know what happened? She never called! I should have known then what I was dealing with. Not that knowing would have done any good. When a woman like Kate Pearce wants your boyfriend, I don't think there's much you can do to stop it.

I don't mean to make it sound like Tom had no part in this. I warned him. "She doesn't just want to be friends with you," I'd say. "That's not how women like that operate," I'd say. "She's not going to stop until she has sex with you." Tom had even wanted to invite her to our dinner party that night! "She doesn't have many friends," he said. Right, I thought. First I invite her to a dinner party and then she insinuates herself into my circle of friends and the next thing you know she's nailing my boyfriend. I know how these things work, I thought. Unfortunately I didn't know how this particular thing was working, because Kate had skipped the preliminaries. She already was nailing my boyfriend. She'd been doing it for five months!

"We don't have enough chairs for Kate and Andre," I said to Tom when he suggested the dinner party invitation.

"It would just be Kate," Tom said. "And I'll sit on a folding chair."

"What happened to Andre?" I said.

"He's not in the picture anymore," Tom said.

"What do you mean he's not in the picture anymore?" I said.

"They broke up. I thought you knew that."

"How could I possibly know that?"

You're probably wondering, if this affair had been going on for five months, how come Tom hadn't moved out earlier. Which is an excellent question. We weren't married. We didn't have any kids. He could have broken up with me and then moved out and then started seeing Kate and through it all kept his moral compass pointing north. But, as it turned out, Tom hadn't done any of those things in the proper order because Kate wanted to take it slow! And he didn't want to scare her off! Like she was a baby deer in a forest clearing or something! The most disturbing part, however, is the reason Kate wanted to take things slow. Apparently, Andre's mother was sick, very sick—sick with advanced pancreatic cancer in fact—and Kate didn't think it would be fair to walk out on him in his time of need. So there was Tom, waiting for Andre's mother to die from pancreatic cancer and for a suitable amount of time to pass so that Kate could drop the hatchet on Andre with a clear conscience and then, only then, was he going to get around to breaking up with me. I'm thirty-two years old, people! I don't have that kind of time!

I didn't know any of that stuff the night of the mustard, though. That first night all I really knew for sure was that Tom had been having lunch with his ex-girlfriend all summer and he'd been reading a book of Japanese death poems called Japanese Death Poems. If nothing else, the whole death poem thing should have tipped me off. A happy person doesn't read a book of poems about death, particularly poems about death that were written only moments before each poet's actual demise, which is what this book was full of. Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death happens to be the subtitle. Tom would read a bunch of these poems before bed each night and then he wouldn't be in the mood to have sex. Sometimes he'd even read one aloud to me, which at the time I thought was nice—Tom and I were never a read-aloud-to-each-other kind of couple, we were a read-it-when-I'm-done kind of couple—although I now suspect he was only doing it so I wouldn't be in the mood to have sex either. These poems were unbelievably depressing. Like a rotten log / half-buried in the ground—my life, which / has not flowered, comes / to this sad end.

Anyhow, I was in bed, flipping through the death poem book, drinking my wine, trying not to think about Tom, or Tom and Kate, and what it was precisely that they did together, and whether or not they were doing it at that very moment, when the phone rang.

My heart leapt.

I let the machine pick it up. It was Nina Peeble, one of the people who'd been in my living room earlier, calling from her cell phone.

"I just want you to remember one thing, Alison," Nina said into the machine. "They always come back."


THE LAST THING TOM SAID TO ME BEFORE HE HUNG UP THE phone that night was, "Don't write about this." He thought I might be tempted to take the mustard and the dinner party and the phone call and whip it into seven hundred words and run it as my column for the week. I'd been writing essentially the same column since college, but by the time Tom and I broke up, it was running in an alternative newspaper called the Philadelphia Times. The Philadelphia Times would like to be the Village Voice, only this is Philadelphia, not New York, and that can make it kind of difficult. My friend Eric grew up around here and now lives in Manhattan, and what he says is that Philadelphia is the kind of city where the local newscasters are celebrities. Eric is always saying things like that, things that are true in some obvious and fundamental way and yet nonetheless surprisingly depressing.

Anyhow, as far as not writing about Tom, I really couldn't see how I was going to manage to avoid it. Tom Hathaway was a recurring character in my column, and it simply wouldn't be possible to have him just drop out of it altogether. I was going to have to tell the truth, and there were several general problems with that, and one specific one. First of all, this was not the sort of breakup that reflected well on the victim. I realized that the second I hung up the phone. In fact, it strikes me that if I hadn't had a living room full of witnesses, it's entirely possible I would have changed the story around a little—made Tom's behavior seem slightly less appalling—not because I wanted to protect him, but because I wanted to protect me. Also, there was the question that always comes up in a situation like this, the what was she (me) doing with him (Tom) in the first place question. Too many pieces of the puzzle were missing, and if that much was clear to me—the person who had been living in the midst of all the puzzle pieces and yet apparently missing them entirely—I could just imagine how it would look to somebody from the outside. So those were the general problems. The specific problem was this: Tom is an attorney, and it crossed my mind that if I wrote about what happened that night when he asked me not to, I might end up getting sued. In my experience, there is a certain type of writer who wastes a lot of energy worrying about getting sued, and usually it's just self-aggrandizing nonsense, but the truth is in this case I'm not so sure. I suppose it doesn't help that I always give people the same names they have in real life. I can't help it. Otherwise I can't keep everybody straight. I really don't believe in changing details much, either. That's what the writing books always tell you to do—"change the identifying details" is how they put it—but I can never bring myself to do it.

I feel I should point out that I became the kind of columnist I became before it was a cliché, before the Suddenly-Susanness of it all hit the culture full force, before the whole thing became boring, and silly, and obvious. By the time all that happened, it was too late. I was hooked. I suppose if I had been exposed to Dorothy Parker at an impressionable age she would have been who I wanted to grow up to be, but we didn't get Dorothy Parker in Arizona when I was growing up; we got Nora Ephron. Who I proceeded to want to grow up to be. I didn't find out until years later—after I'd been exposed to Dorothy Parker myself and had begun to idly contemplate attempting to become her—that Nora Ephron had wanted to grow up to be Dorothy Parker, which made me quite pleased.

Unfortunately, it's very difficult for somebody like me to become somebody like Dorothy Parker, or somebody like Nora Ephron for that matter, because I'm not Jewish. Not only am I not Jewish, I am the opposite of Jewish. I was raised as an evangelical Christian, a real born-again, a tribe which completely lacks a comedic tradition and is almost entirely missing an intellectual one. We also don't have much in the way of a self-hating tradition, come to think of it, although God knows everybody else in the world wishes we would hurry up and develop one. Because—and I realize I don't have to tell you this—people hate evangelical Christians. They hate, hate, hate them. They hate the Christian right, they hate the Moral Majority, they hate Jerry Falwell, they hate the pro-lifers, they hate people with the little silver fish on the back of their minivans, they hate the guy at the office with the weird haircut who won't put money into the football pool. Of course, the guy at the office with the weird haircut could be a Mormon, but for some reason people don't hate Mormons. Most people think of Mormons as just sort of inoffensive super-Christians. The only people who don't think of Mormons as Christians, in fact, are Mormons and Christians. A few years ago, my mother called me and told me that the people who'd moved in next door were Mormons.

"Do they have a trampoline?" I said.

"How did you know?" said my mother.

"Mormons love trampolines," I said. "I don't know why, but they do."

Anyhow, my mother befriended her counterpart next door, and the two of them spent the next three years swapping one-dish recipes and trying in vain to convert one another. Which brings us to people's fundamental problem with born-again Christians, which is that they don't want to be converted. They don't even want to entertain the notion that they might need to be converted. The problem is that at some point in the conversation, the person being converted is going to say something like, "What happens if I decide to take a pass?" and the person doing the converting will get a drippy, painfully sincere look on his face and say, "Then you'll spend eternity in hell." This is upsetting, even if you think they're completely full of shit. And, well, the rest of it sure doesn't look like any fun. Even when I was a kid I knew it wasn't any fun. In high school youth group, no matter what we were doing some kid would say, "See, we don't need to drink to have fun"—even then I suspected what I now know is true—namely, that it is more fun to drink and do drugs and have sex than to not do so. It is much more fun.

You're probably wondering, if I was an evangelical Christian, what I was doing living with my boyfriend Tom in the first place. Well, the truth is I haven't been much of a Christian for quite some time—since college, really, although some of the more glaring aftereffects lingered well into my twenties, the pink sweaters, the bad hair. If I'd stopped to give the matter any thought I would have jumped ship before I got to college, because being an evangelical Christian in college is unbelievably tedious. Everybody around you is busy drinking and smoking and trying psychedelic mushrooms and experimenting with lesbianism and sucking Jell-O shots out of the navels of strangers in Cancún during spring break, while you sit around, trying to be good. The worst possible thing to be is an evangelical Christian at an Ivy League university—which is what I was—because you're not only trying to be good, you're trying to be smart. You end up fighting the Scopes Monkey Trial over and over again on your dorm room floor—only guess whose side you're on? Guess who you have to be? Plus, there's all that time spent sitting around in small circles with other Christians, pondering imponderable questions. Would it be possible, the classic one goes, for God to make a rock so big that He couldn't lift it? Could He make a black cat that's white? Could He make a square circle? Then you move on to important matters. Like how far you can go and still be considered a virgin. This is a matter of contentious debate, but let me assure you: it is all true about Christian girls and blowjobs. (It is not, however, true about Christian girls and anal sex, with a few truly pioneering exceptions, only one of whom I happen to have met.)


On Sale
Jul 2, 2004
Page Count
240 pages

Sarah Dunn

About the Author

Sarah Dunn is a novelist and television writer whose credits include Spin City (for which she co-wrote Michael J. Fox’s farewell episode) and the critical darling Bunheads, which you would have loved. Her debut novel, The Big Love, is available to read in nineteen languages. Dunn is also the creator and executive producer of the 2016 ABC series, American Housewife. She lives outside New York City with her family and their seventeen chickens.

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