Dogs and Downsizing

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

Heroic measuresOriginally published in 2009 and brought to the UK last year by Pushkin Press, Heroic Measures is a tale about one weekend in the life of an older couple and their beloved dachshund Dorothy.

Ruth and Alex Cohen have lived for 45 years in a co-op, a ‘five-flight walk-up in the East Village’. Bought for five grand, they’ve reluctantly put the apartment on the market for $999,000, but the moment they sign the realtor’s contract, the headiness of being a millionaire vanishes. Why are they moving out of the city?  ‘She and Alex, never mind Dorothy, would be lost anywhere but New York,’ muses Ruth as they finish tidying the flat for the open house tomorrow. Meanwhile:

At twelve, eating is Dorothy’s last great pleasure. Her dachshund face, mostly snout, is now completely white, whiter even than Alex’s. She is missing two canines and three back molars. At hr withers she stands eight inches tall, weighs ten pounds, two ounces. She tried to get up, but nothing happens. Her hind legs have turned to ice, burning ice. Without even knowing that she’s doing it, she relieves herself on the toes. She only know that she has done so because of the odor; it smells sour and sick. She lets loose a shrill yelp.

The animal hospital is way uptown and they get into a taxi, only to get trapped in terrible gridlock – a tanker has jackknifed in the Midtown tunnel and the Muslim driver has fled – there’s already talk of it being a terrorist plot. Finally they get to the hospital to find that Dorothy has a ruptured disc – it’s going to be expensive. Eventually they get back home, and are contemplating leaving the final clearing up until the morning. With the drama of the tunnel, Alex says ‘I don’t think anyone’s going house hunting tomorrow.’  The phone rings – it’s Lily:

‘What about the tunnel?’ she asks Lily.
‘I closed on a Tribeca loft the day after Nine Eleven. We might not get the hordes we want, but we’ll get the serious ones, and that will work in our favor.’
Ruth hangs up. ‘Lily’s bringing a couple by at eight-thirty. The house sale is on.’

The next day Alex and Ruth have to put up with all the house-hunters – one lays on their bed for a full twenty minutes, another brings a huge dog, and all the while, they’re waiting for news from the hospital about Dorothy.

This is mostly a gentle comedy – with occasional bite. Ruth and Alex may be in their seventies, but Alex – an artist is still working (on an illuminated manuscript based on his FBI file!)  They alternatively bicker and support each other through all the trials of the bidding war that starts on the flat, but Ruth’s mind is nearly always elsewhere with Dorothy.  They’re loveable and crotchety; Ruth frets, Alex wise-cracks – Ciment portrays them well without too much sentimentality. For me, however, the star of this charming novel was Dorothy, who has her own very real perception of everything that’s happening to her.  The ‘terrorist-or-not’ sub-plot does add extra stress to their weekend, but it also feels a little too much at times – although, upon reflection, it allows some smart comment on unamerican activities and involves yet more dogs.

The novel was filmed as Ruth & Alex (called Five Flights Up in the US) and released in 2014, starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman (with Cynthia Nixon as Lily the estate agent). They don’t fit my vision of the couple at all – I would have cast F Murray Abraham and (maybe) Sally Field if remaining true to the novel – but I’ve not seen the film.

The novel was a light and entertaining read in the company of Ruth, Alex and Dorothy. I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you.

Jill Ciment, Heroic Measures (Pushkin Press, 2015). Paperback, 208 pages.

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