Robb Forman Dew, novelist who wrote of families, dies at 73
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Robb Forman Dew, novelist who wrote of families, dies at 73
The Truth of the Matter.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Robb Forman Dew, whose carefully etched novels of family life made her, as one critic put it, “one of our premier chroniclers of the everyday,” died May 22 in Springfield, Massachusetts. She was 73.

Her son John said the cause was complications of endocarditis, a disease that affects the heart.

Dew made a splash in 1981 with her first novel, “Dale Loves Sophie to Death,” about a woman who returns each summer with her children to her hometown in Ohio. Katha Pollitt, reviewing it in The New York Times, acknowledged that some readers might be put off by its unhurried pace.

“In a way, though,” she wrote, “I respect Mrs. Dew all the more for risking our impatience in order to tell her story her own way, and for forcing us, by her own considerable talent, to listen and admire. It takes a certain artistic courage to write the traditional novel of domestic feeling today, a novel with no violence, no million-dollar deals, no weird sex — and perhaps as much editorial courage to publish it.”

“Dale Loves Sophie” won an American Book Awards citation for first novel. The honors are now known as the National Book Awards, although Dew was careful to note that her distinction was for a first novel, not for the more prestigious best fiction.

“I keep telling my publishers not to say I won the National Book Award,” she told Ron Hogan in 2001 for his website, “but they’ll never change the blurb now.”

She followed her first effort with “The Time of Her Life” (1984) and “Fortunate Lives” (1992), continuing to eschew fast-paced pyrotechnics for the slowly assembled quilt.

“For all its uneventfulness,” Robert Cohen wrote in the Los Angeles Times of the 1992 book, which revisited the fictional family of her debut, “this is a novel that heightens our senses, awakens us to the fragility of even the most cozy and familiar lives.”

Dew’s later books included a trilogy, “The Evidence Against Her” (2001), “The Truth of the Matter” (2005) and “Being Polite to Hitler” (2011; the title refers to one character’s feeling that everyone she knows would obey social protocol no matter what). These books followed the Scofield clan, and the first began in the early 20th century. Dew said she set out to write one book but, as she began explaining why the characters were the way they were, found material for a second book, and so on, going back in time as she teased the characters out.

“I started thinking,” she told Hogan, “that if I wasn’t careful, I’d start the story with creatures coming out of the ooze and developing legs.”

Robb Reavill Forman was born Oct. 26, 1946, in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Her father, Dr. Oliver Duane Forman, was a neurosurgeon, and her mother, Helen Elizabeth Ransom, was a homemaker and worked at the Kenyon College bookstore.

When she was 4 the family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she grew up, with regular extended summer trips back to Ohio. When she was a senior in high school, she said, she lived for a time with her maternal grandfather, poet, critic and educator John Crowe Ransom.

“He would read my English themes, which must have bored him terribly,” she told The Missouri Review in 1991, “and I would take it upon myself to give him critiques of his essays on Blake, which I knew nothing about.”

Dew attended Louisiana State University for a time and in 1968 married a history professor there, Charles B. Dew. That year he took a job teaching at the University of Missouri, and the couple lived there for a decade. The fictional town of Lunsbury in “The Time of Her Life” was a stand-in for Columbia, Missouri, Dew admitted, although she changed the name in part to give her the latitude to “invent the weather.”

“I was in Columbia during an amazing ice storm,” she said, “and the river froze over a long period of time. I have telescoped that into three days. I don’t believe a river can freeze that quickly, but I decided it had to for the sake of my book.”

In 1977, when Charles Dew took a job at Williams College, the couple moved to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Robb Forman Dew was living at her death. But her fiction, she said, was always shaped by her Southern upbringing.

“I think there’s no escaping family,” she told The Missouri Review. “That may be a particularly Southern view — family as destiny. No matter how much you may like to be separate from how you grew up, I believe it shapes you forever.”

In 1994, Dew found occasion to write about a nonfictional family: her own. The book was called “The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out,” and in it she examined her reaction when her son Stephen told her he was gay. That reaction included a blunt denunciation of Sen. Sam Nunn, the powerful Georgia Democrat, whose early opposition to allowing gay people to join the military had filled her son with self-doubt.

“That Sam Nunn — that ghastly epitome of humorless, patriarchal, small-town, southern rectitude,” she wrote, “who is perhaps pathologically incapable of empathy — that this arrogant, smug man could touch a child of mine and injure him, and that Sam Nunn would have been elated to know that he had done so, made me ill with rage.”

In addition to her sons and her husband, Dew is survived by a sister, Elizabeth Ransom Forman.

In the Missouri Review interview, Dew recalled showing an early attempt at fiction to her grandfather the critic.

“It was sort of Gothic Southern with watermelon and maggots and everything possible in it,” she said. “He finally said, ‘Robb, don’t embarrass your reader.’”

She took the lesson to heart.

“You don’t want your reader to cringe for the writer,” she said. You don’t mind if they cringe for the character, but for a reader to feel embarrassment on your behalf — that’s awful.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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