Dogs and humans save each other in this sentimental novel by Cooney (Thanksgiving, 2013, etc.).
After her first love and graduate school career fall victim to a cocaine habit, and after a stint in rehab from which she emerges sober but alone, Evie finds herself applying for and getting accepted into a program at the Sanctuary. Occupying a former ski resort at the top of a small mountain, the Sanctuary houses and rehabilitates rescued dogs and occasionally trains a human in the art of training these dogs. Cooney is very specific about the dogs themselves and the cruel situations they’ve endured, but she paints the Sanctuary in such broad strokes that it feels like a dream. Tonally, this matches the largely hands-off training program, run by a group of interchangeable nuns, and it keeps the focus on Evie, who embraces self-teaching. Doing constant research on her laptop with just a handful of leads from the nuns, she creates an extensive (and eventually tiresome) dictionary of dog-related terms that serves her well when she begins to interact with the rescue dogs. Like her abused canine charges, Evie is clever, evasive, defiant and rebellious, and though she has no previous animal training experience, she turns out to be a natural. Additional entries to the dictionary throughout the book reveal more heavy-handed details about the perils dogs face in the world but also allow glimpses into Evie’s interior. Despite all this, her empathy for the dogs feels slightly implausible. More subtle and rewarding are a few scenes from the viewpoint of Mrs. Auberchon, the outwardly bitter woman who runs the inn at the mountain’s base.
If as much attention was given to context as to Evie and the dogs, this would be a strong novel. As is, it’s slight.