Dog Days by Ericka Waller is ‘not the rom-com you think it is’

The cover of Dog Days caught my eye in Nantwich Bookshop Coffee Lounge – bright pink, orange and blue with illustrations of dogs dotted between acclaims for Ericka Waller’s debut novel.

I hate to be a sucker for a pretty sleeve, and since the book lacked a blurb on the back cover, I was confident this book about ‘love, loss and what it is to be human’ would be a fluffy light story to read between my much darker crime thrillers.

I was wrong.

Dog Days is not the bright and breezy rom-com you’d think it to be, but I love it all the more for that reason. I love it for surprising me with harder hitting topics that range from grief and depression, to domestic violence and sexual identity. I love it for it’s heart breaking twists that you didn’t see coming, and the fact that Ericka is not an author that gives the reader the happy ending or the outcomes they wanted. This book left me feeling sombre – but also left me thinking about the story and it’s characters (whom I’d grown rather attached to) for days after I closed the novel.

Meet the characters:

George – George reminds me of Tony from Ricky Gervais’ Afterlife. After finding himself a widower when his wife dies of cancer, he’s angry at the world and takes it out on the entire village – though not before sitting around in his underpants and shouting at the cricket. Before she died, his wife, Ellen, bought a dachshund puppy called Poppy, who George despises – though not more than he berates neighbour Betty for trying to take him under her wing feeding him cake and getting him out of the house.

Dan – Dan is a counsellor with OCD who finds himself besotted with one of his clients, but knows he can’t act on his feelings and is afraid to admit them. His most meaningful relationship so far is with his labrador Fitz, and he worries about his inexperience in love. Dan’s character is possibly my favourite, and Dog Days sees him on a journey of self discovery regarding his identity and sexuality, while always looking out for those around him.

Lizzie – Lizzie is living in a women’s refuge with her son Lenny. Her body is covered in scars and she has shut herself off from everyone around her, speaking only in random facts worthy of a pub quiz. She finds solace in walking the shelter’s overweight terrier, Maud, where she finds herself falling for side character, Luke.

Each character’s story finds itself loosely connected in some way, through chance meetings and relationships, and via dogs bounding up to people demanding to be pet.

Dog Days, in its short, sharp chapters, is a fly on the wall in the lives of Lizzie, George and Dan, peeking at small yet life changing moments as they learn to make connections and ‘find joy and comfort in living life off the leash’.

Labrador owner, Ericka, wrote not one, but five beautiful canine characters into this story – each with their own purpose. They’re narrated with an almost human-like character that pet-owners will appreciate, and are portrayed as support givers and secret keepers, offering insight into the healing power of dogs.

The way in which it’s written means Dog Days could easily be three separate stories – but the way in which they’re intertwined adds such an intelligent element to the novel which has so much more depth than the cover or synopsis might have you believe. While funny in places, it’s absolutely heart wrenching in others, and so emotionally captivating that I finished it in a day.

Ericka carefully and tactfully handles some of the more challenging themes in the story, particularly in Lizzie’s case – but the same goes for each of the troubled characters.

And the characters themselves are not all that likeable, but you still find yourself hoping things will work out in the end. George’s story was possibly the one that made me smile the most as we got to watch him soften and grow fond on sausage dog, Poppy – but I’d have loved to see chapters from Betty and Luke’s perspectives, too. Might be going to far to ask for insight from the four-legged characters.

Dog Days is a quick, witty and easy read in terms of pace and prose, but is certainly an emotional rollercoaster riding on hope and a desire for new beginnings. This book made my heart hurt in places, and while every outcome might not be the one I’d hoped or wanted, I love and respect Ericka even more for denying me a happy or predictable ending, because I truly couldn’t stop thinking about Dog Days for, well, days. While I was surprised that it wasn’t the cute chick lit about people with dogs I’d picked it up for, I’m so glad it offered more in such a powerful and moving way.

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