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The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel Paperback – August 2, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Dawson's nicely written if erratically paced debut interweaves two story lines--in 2005, there's Annabelle McKay's midlife crisis as her empty-nest marriage to historian Grant falls into the doldrums, and in the 1970s, there's the beginning of their relationship and the affair that nearly drove them apart. In the present, Annabelle's middle-aged ennui and floundering marriage spin out slowly until her pregnant daughter Sophie's health crisis takes Annabelle to Manhattan to care for her. In the past, Dawson trawls through Annabelle and Grant's young, troubled marriage during his first job at Columbia University, when they live with his mentor, Jeremiah. The first third of the book is so mired in backstory that even Dawson's enjoyable prose and keen characterization can't save the monotony. The novel finally picks up steam when past and present collide, underlining the themes of marriage and self, but the ending feels rushed and pat. For fans of upmarket hen lit, it's worth a look, but Dawson doesn't deliver enough consistent tension to make the work pop.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"[A] deceptively bouncing, ultimately wrenching novel [that] will grab you at page one....The phrase 'summer read' seems invented for this debut."

"Nicely written...enjoyable prose and keen characterization."
Publishers Weekly

“Both tender and exquisite, Maddie Dawson’s triumphant debut, The Stuff That Never Happened, is a pitch-perfect look into the choices we made in our past and the consequences that they carry long into the future. I loved every page.”
—Allison Winn Scotch, New York Times bestselling author of The One That I Want
"The Stuff That Never Happened is unlike a lot of novels I read - I was never quite sure what was going to happen, and in that way, I found it compelling and compulsive to read.  Often when I'm halfway through a book, I'm fairly certain of the characters' paths.  This time, the lives encountered were surprising, illuminating, and always believable."
—Susan Straight, author of A Million Nightingales
“What a joy it is to discover Maddie Dawson. In the best storytelling tradition of writers like Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, Dawson delivers a fast-paced, unflinching, often hilarious novel about the challenges of love, parenthood, and staying true to yourself in a marriage.”
—Holly Robinson, author of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir
“'I can admit that I went there hungry for the drama of him, that I craved that heightened sense of loving and being loved again,' Maddie Dawson's middleaged heroine confesses.  In trying to make sense of one married woman's relationship to her old flame, The Stuff That Never Happened is a paean to family happiness as much as romance.”
—Stewart O'Nan, author of Songs for the Missing

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (August 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307393682
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307393685
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (176 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #812,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I grew up in the South, born into a family of outrageous storytellers--the kind of storytellers who would sit on the dock by the lake in the evening and claim that everything they say is THE absolute truth, like, stack-of-Bibles true. The more outlandish the story, the more it likely it was to be true. Or so they said.

You want examples? There was the story of my great great aunt who shot her husband dead, thinking he was a burglar; the alligator that almost ate Uncle Jake while he was waterskiing; the gay cousin who took his aunt to the prom, disguised in a bouffant French wig. (The aunt, not the cousin.) And then there was my mama, a blond-haired siren who, when I was seven, drove a married man so insane that he actually stole an Air Force plane one day and buzzed our house. (I think there might have been a court-martial ending to that story.)

And in between all these stories of crazy, over-the-top events, there was the hum of just daily, routine crazy: shotgun weddings, drunken funerals, stories of people's affairs and love lives, their job losses, the things that made them laugh, the way they'd drink Jack Daniels and get drunk and foretell the future. There were ghosts and miracles and dead people coming back to life. You know, everyday stuff.

How could I turn into anything else but a writer? My various careers as a substitute English teacher, department store clerk, medical records typist, waitress, cat-sitter, wedding invitation company receptionist, nanny, daycare worker, electrocardiogram technician, and Taco Bell taco-maker were only bearable if I could think up stories as I worked. In fact, the best job I ever had was a part-time gig typing up case notes for a psychiatrist. Everything the man dictated bloomed as a possible novel in my head.

Still, I was born with an appreciation for food and shelter, and it didn't take me long to realize that coupling a minor in journalism to my English degree might be a wise move, even though I had never for one moment felt that passion for news that my newspaper colleagues claimed beat in their breasts. I am famous for raising my hand in Journalism 101 and saying, incredulously, to the professor, "You don't mean to tell me that every single detail in the story has to be true? Every one? Really?"

Learning to write only truth was a tough discipline, and as soon as I could, I left the world of house fires and political scandals and planning and zoning commission meetings and escaped into a world of column-writing, and then, magazine writing. (Way, way better to be assigned to think of 99 ways of getting him to declare his love, than to have to write about the bond proposal for the sewer lines.) But all along the way, in between deadlines and raising three children and driving them to their sports games and tucking them in at night and doing the laundry and telling them stories, I was really writing a novel about marriage and relationships and the way regret has of just showing up alongside your life, just when you think things are as rosy as they could be.

Today I live in Connecticut, and spend part of every day on my screened-in back porch with my trusty laptop, writing and writing and writing, looking out at the willow tree and the rosebush and the rhododendron that has a nice nest of cardinals, who I imagine to be yelling at me to get back to work whenever I wait too long to write the next sentence.

The lakehouse is gone now, and many of my more outrageous story-telling relatives are telling stories to the angels now. But even though I'm far from home, and far from the stories that nourished me in the beginning, I can still hear their voices on the breeze, still recall the buzz of the Air Force jet that had come to take my mother away until my father stepped in and said: "No. No. She's mine."

Wait. Is that what he said? Or was he not home that day? You know, now that I think of it, it might have been just my mother and me at home just then, running outside in our excitement, my mother's cheeks burning red, her eyes frightened and dancing, as the wings dipped and did a little salute to her and to love and to unrequited passion...and probably to hope that she would leave my father and run away. I do remember being scared and exhilarated both, seeing that my mother had this power and this whole other life besides the one I spent with her.

And I remember the wide Florida sky and the heavy, humid air and the loudness drowning out everything but the thought that we never ever know what's going to happen. And knowing, even at seven, that that was probably a good thing.

Keeps it interesting, you know.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 43 people found the following review helpful By N. Hall on August 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most satisfying novels I've read in a long time. Light years beyond chick lit, wise, and worldly. It's so refreshing to find a novel whose characters feel like real people, not folks you might see on a made-for-TV movie. Annabelle and Grant love each other deeply, but the glue that holds their marriage together might not be enough once the kids are (mostly) grown. The new emptiness in their house begins to fill up with dangerous thoughts and emotions related to an earlier, difficult time in their life together, a time they have agreed never to speak of again. This chapter in their marriage becomes "the stuff that never happened." It did happen, though, and when a new crisis in their lives threatens to break through the silence, Annabelle and Grant have to face the ramifications of keeping their mutual secret.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By GBB on August 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book is one of the best novels I have read in years (and I read A LOT!). It starts off very subtley as you wonder why on earth Annabelle and Grant ever got married in the first place and then how the marriage has lasted for 26 years. Through brilliant interweaving of the late 70's when the two main characters first met one another and the mid-2000's as they are empty nesters, we gradually learn and come to understand the dynamics of a long term marriage and to really care about the people, even Grant, who seems rather stuffy. I'm glad we got to learn about all his good points before the end of the story! There were so many wonderful insights into human nature as Annabelle deals with her daughter's questions and explores her own life. Maddie Dawson is an incredibly wise woman to have so exquisitely captured so much truth and wisdom in this novel. I loved this book, and highly recommend it.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Becker VINE VOICE on November 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a fictional novel, but the characters are so real it reads like a true story. The scenes are so emblematic of everyday life that M. Dawson provides the experience of analyzing your best friend's journal. The Stuff That Never Happened, is full of prose that has just the right elixir of drama, humor, and back-story, making it all too easy to slip away from your own life for a few hours and stay up reading long past the time when you should have been asleep.

Just so happens that one of the things that I liked the best about this story is also the thing that I liked the least about this story. Strange, I know. This is the thing: There isn't really a big plot, no real suspense, no climax, and no big surprises. By reading the back of the book you know that Annabell McKay has to choose between two men: her husband and a man from her past. In a nutshell, that is the story. It sounds like typical chicklit, and I'm typically not a big fan of that genre, but this was much better than most of the other books I've read in this category. M. Dawson definitely has a talent for making normal and flawed characters become extraordinarily interesting.

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Clued on October 23, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
We just had a local carnival and I rode the Zipper. The Zipper makes you spin every which way and this is how I felt reading this book. Okay. I loved the characters and Maddie Dawson writes fluidly. I was hoping for an easy read and did not get it at all! Meaning, this story is very deep and while I get that love is about the ups and downs and survival, I would have walked away from the drama long ago. But I'm glad people aren't like me because this was a great story that I couldn't put down. And it made me question my own thoughts about what love really means. I'm going to buy this book when the price drops(I have it on my Kindle currently)so that I have it on my shelves. I also really like the cover (I saw it in the bookstore which is what made me look for it on Kindle). That way I have this book forever in case something happens to my Kindle.
How better of a recommendation do you need? I'm buying this book twice!
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By R. A. Taylor VINE VOICE on October 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The author had me in the first two paragraphs of The Stuff That Never Happened. When Annabelle McKay, the narrator of the story, began crying in the supermarket, not sure why she was, but conjecturing it could have been because it was February in New Hampshire, I knew I was going to enjoy this story. I've spent many, many winters in New England and I know that feeling of February--that mind numbing, bone chilling, nothing to see but ice everywhere--I knew there was a reason to cry in the supermarket.

But there is so much more to this story. Annabelle has been married for many years and her children have flown the nest. Now it's just her and her husband in the house. And her husband is very involved in writing a book, so he has very little time for anything but his writing. Suddenly Annabelle is called to New York City to stay with her daughter who is pregnant and having difficulties with the pregnancy. Annabelle sees this as a time to not only help her daughter, but reflect on her marriage. I was treated to stories of the present and the past, back when Annabelle first met Grant, back in the 1970s.

I loved this story. The characters were so fully developed, I felt I knew them. I don't remember any other book that had me practically talking out loud to Annabelle, giving her unsolicited advice and chiding her for things she did say and things she didn't say. I would recommend this book to anyone who is in a long term relationship, anyone who has felt somewhat dissatisfied and wondered if it was all worth it. This is a story well told with characters that seem real, as if they were your next door neighbors.
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