Martha Tod Dudman

"Black Olives "

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew MAR 7, 2008)

"Nine months later, I run into David for the first time since our breakup. All year I've been dreading this moment, but always dressing in expectation of it, because when I do see him, finally, I want to look good.

I'm standing in Rogerson's Emporium, over by the olives, when it happens. I hear the door open and I glance around and see him walking in. I recognize at once the bright flag of his white hair, but I've got my back to him and he doesn't notice me.

This feeling goes through me, like my cell phone's on vibrate and it's going off in my pocket -- like I'm experiencing a minor electric shock. Like I can't move. Maybe he won't see me. Won't recognize the back of my head, the jacket I'm wearing, the once familiar shape of my ass."

Black Olives by Martha Tod Dudman

We've all gone through it: the trauma of a breakup. We all know how it feels to be told, "We have to talk," and then hear the dreaded, "It's over." Being the dumped one, the one who didn't get to decide, hurts like hell. But in the calculus of human relations, the freedom to call a halt trumps the desire to hold things together, even though somehow that just seems so wrong when we're the ones someone doesn't love or want anymore. Why doesn't he love me any longer? Why does being rejected stab my ego into trying to "win" him back? How come, long after he's vamoosed, I think of tons I should have said to him? What was wrong with me that caused him to leave and not look back? Oh, yes, the questions and the agony can whirl in our clouded, abandoned selves for weeks, months, even years. 

Martha Tod Dudman's Black Olives: A Novel infiltrates the moment-by-moment thoughts of Virginia of Maine, who, nine months after breaking up -- on New Year's --  with David, tells us exactly how she feels when he saunters into "ye phony old grocery store," Rogerson's Emporium, where she is already poking through the aisles: "I feel as if I could cry forever. I could begin crying right here by the olives." Unprepared to simply strut up and say a casual "hello," she panics and hides herself before fleeing the store so artlessly that she nearly upsets a large ceramic mug that, had it crashed to the floor, would have glued every customer's eyes, including David's, onto her.

Outside, she is flabbergasted to find his Jeep Cherokee parked just two spaces from her own moonroofed, red-leather-seated number. She knew she would have noticed his vehicle had she parked "one car over." Had he erased her from his mind so thoroughly that he'd paid no attention? She fumes and fusses, not sure whether to escape while he's still occupied inside or stay and speak to him. After all, she was in such shock when he ended it last January 1, she didn't get to tell him what she really thought of him, did she? And nine months had only inflated that mountain of saved-up speech. Then, abrupty, her senses run for the hills: she, totally impulsively, sticks her head through the Cherokee's open window to inhale familiar David smells. And then she -- "I don't even know what I'm doing" --  opens the door and stuffs herself into the space behind the driver's seat! She covers herself with the clutter back there. Now he's coming...and she doesn't budge! 

Okay then, what do you imagine about Virginia's age? Think maybe she is a twenty-something, thanks to her retro-adolescent behavior? Well, maybe the first-paragraph hint about David's hair ("bright flag of white") tipped you off. Nope, this Jeep Cherokee stowaway is middle-aged. She and David, both divorced, began their ten-year relationship when Virginia was forty and he about fifty. Yes, even adult adults with their own homes and grown children can pull crazy stunts. 

Black Olives isn't solely focused on the girlish actions of a woman still emotionally bruised and aching from the New Year's breakup. To be sure, we follow her every move as she trespasses even more egregiously during this single, bizarre day. But, as she encroaches on her former lover's space, she minutely reviews her years with him. She remembers the blush of early, giddy closeness and then the ways they pulled away from each other. Dudman is so intent on imprinting the details of these recollections that, in places, she covers the same ground several times. Virginia's thought patterns call to mind those compact, circular robo-vacuums that crisscross floors haphazardly. But, switching metaphors, her frank, constantly rolling inner narrative touches the reader with its devotion to unpacking the baggage that led to the David/Virginia parting.

David was a man who wanted a wife again. He wanted someone in his house, making the place a home again. He proposed to Virginia on several occasions, hoping each time she would come around to wanting to be that wife. She wanted a "boyfriend," not another husband, and so she kept a distance between them. David's decade head start on Virginia also meant some of his ingrained habits seemed offputtingly "old-manish" to her. And David had a history of cheating. He had done it during his marriage; why wouldn't he also step out on Virginia when the bloom had gone off their rose?

Black Olives explores the unfinished devastation that the perhaps inevitable end of this long-term relationship dealt out. We hear only Virginia's ramblings, but because she does not spare herself, we know David's decision to end it with her on New Year's Day wasn't a totally swinish, despicable act. And when we reach the last page, we, having followed Virginia's grueling marathon of introspection, recognize the simplicity and rightness of how she leaves things with this man she had loved. (We can't help wondering though how she will rendezvous with her comfy, moonroofed auto and/or get herself home....)

This is a sure-handed, compulsively involving novel that wryly dissects and understands the human conditions that undermine the crusade of love. Love isn't "happily ever after" very often, and we all know it from personal heartache. Dudman just tells one "love-off-the-rails" story with more brass, more black comedy, more attention to the detritus of relationships and more gritty candor than most of us would or could. Reading Black Olives can tip us into memories of our own misfires in love, but it can also prod us to work harder to guard what we have when we have it.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Black Olives at author's website

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About the Author:

Martha Tod DudmanMartha Todd Dudman served as President and General Manager of Dudman Communications, a group of radio stations, from 1990 to 1999.

Her memoir Augusta, Gone was adapted into an award-winning Lifetime Television movie.

Now a professional fundraiser, she lives in Northeast Harbor, Maine. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014