The quirky premise of Carolyn Parkhurst's debut novel, The Dogs of Babel, is original enough: after his wife Lexy dies after falling from a tree, linguistics professor Paul Iverson becomes obsessed with teaching their dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lorelei (the sole witness to the tragedy), to speak so he can find out the truth about Lexy's death--was it accidental or did Lexy commit suicide?
In short, accelerating chapters Parkhurst alternates between Paul's strange and passionate efforts to get Lorelei to communicate and his heartfelt memories of his whirlwind relationship with Lexy. The first 100 pages or so bring to mind another noteworthy debut, Alice Sebold's brilliant exploration of grief, The Lovely Bones. Unfortunately, the second half of The Dogs of Babel takes too many odd twists and turns--everything from a Ms. Cleo-like TV psychic to an underground sect of abusive canine linguists--to ever allow the reader to feel any real sympathy for the main characters. Parkhurst's Paul Iverson can certainly be appealing at times, and his heartbreak is often quite palpable ("...for every dark moment we shared between us, there was a moment of such brightness I almost could not bear to look at it head-on."). But his mask-maker wife Lexy--Paul's driving inspiration--is a character whose spur-of-the-moment outbursts, spontaneous fits of anger, and supposedly charming sense of whimsy (on their first date, they drive from Virginia to Disney World, eating only appetizers and side dishes along the way), become so annoying and grating that it's hard to believe anyone could ever put up with her, let alone teach their dog to speak for her.
Despite its cloying tone, The Dogs of Babel marks a notable debut. Parkhurst possesses a wealth of inspired ideas, and no doubt many readers will respond to the book, but one hopes that the author's future efforts will be packed with richer character development and less schmaltz. --Gisele Toueg