“I Didn’t Choose The Pug Life. The Pug Life Chose Me.” My new t-shirt from the Mid-Atlantic Pug Rescue organization proclaims this in bold type for anyone who thinks my interest in pugs might be an exercise of free will. I was a goner soon after I met my first snorting, strong-willed, big-eyed, no-nosed, grinning, snaggle-toothed, curly-tongued, adorable pug dog—a small black Old Town resident named Lucy. Therefore, I picked up Alison Pace’s two books, Pug Hill and its sequel, A Pug Tale, with the knowledge that at least I would be interested in a book whose characters owned and interacted with remarkable, comical canines.
Pug Hill stars the thirty-one-year-old Hope McNeill, a woman who feels at a crossroads when it comes to her identity, love life, and family. She is somewhat like a Sex and the City character, only subdued. As a painting restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she lives on the Upper West Side in New York City and makes her way to work across Central Park every day.
A self-proclaimed introvert in the middle of an unsatisfying relationship, Hope is asked to give a speech at her parents’ fortieth-anniversary party. Terrified of public speaking, she decides to face her fears and enroll in a speech-making class at the New School. In the meantime, she pines after her cute museum colleague, Elliott, and grows tired of the ultra-athletic, WASP-y pretensions of her Jewish boyfriend, whose annoying identity crisis merely highlights her own feelings of being part-Catholic and part-Jewish but really nowhere.
Unable to get her own dog, Hope always manages to find respite at the informally named Pug Hill, an area of Central Park near the famous Alice in Wonderland statue. Pugs and their humans arrive on the weekend and on Sundays in particular to run around in circles and snort off steam. She comes when she is upset with her boyfriend, she comes when she worries about going to her class, she comes when she feels like she needs to be free of the world. In all cases she finds moments of gentle transcendence from watching the pugs, sometimes interacting with them and their owners, and telling stories of the many lovely dogs with which she grew up, from mastiffs to terriers to St. Bernards.
There are amusing moments throughout Pug Hill, particularly when Hope attends her class full of urban neurotics who are trying to overcome their public speaking phobias. She manages to achieve her goals and break out of her rut in the process of overcoming her fears of public speaking and being alone. Her progress rewards her by the end of the book. A gentle example of chick lit, Pug Hill is best and most moving when Hope ponders her love for dogs in general and pugs in particular.
In A Pug Tale, Hope’s story picks up again. With a new boyfriend, Ben, and his new pug, Max, Hope is seemingly better situated than in the past. Yet her boyfriend is on a temporary assignment as an international lawyer in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and she is still on her own, albeit taking care of Max. The story starts when Hope and Max crash a pug party set near the Temple of Dendur Hall at the Metropolitan Museum. The party, thrown by the head of development, honors an eccentric septuagenarian socialite and museum benefactor, Daphne Markham, owner of a pug named Madeline.
The next day Hope comes in to the restoration offices to find a nineteenth-century still life painting that should be in a current exhibit. When Max barks at it furiously, she becomes fully aware of his canine ability to pick up on something out of synch in the environment. She and her former colleague and current boss, Elliott, determine that the painting is an excellent fake. With the irritating head of development, Gil, who has been alerted as to the real missing painting, they hire a private investigator to find out who took it. Fearing undeserved scrutiny and accusations, the three museum employees hang the fake in the exhibit in the mean time.
Hope is again in a quandary, particularly as she begins to miss her boyfriend while worrying that she is under suspicion from her boss and Gil for taking the missing painting. Suddenly she receives an e-mail clue that gives her cryptic directions. In the hopes that she can find out what happened to the painting, Hope follows the equivalent of a scavenger hunt, examining works of art throughout the museum. In the process, she sneaks Max in and out of the restoration room, and strikes up a friendship with the self-possessed New York arts patron Daphne Markham, whom she often sees in Central Park on a bench with her pug, Madeline.
Once again, in the middle of her stresses and the idea that Ben may not be coming back for many more months, Hope finds solace in Max and her growing friendship with Daphne. After meeting and confiding in Daphne a number of times, she always feels a sense of calm and relief. Talking to Daphne and remembering her dreams, which feature a symbolic talking Max, help her solve the mystery. Again, Hope finds a way to strengthen her place in her life, New York, and the universe, through her love for a little pug and Ben, the man who brought him into her life.
As a light mystery, A Pug Tale is a playful, furry romp featuring fun scenes and pieces of art from the Metropolitan Museum and much-deserved love and respect for pugs. While having only some things in common with Hope, I possess her strong affection for dogs and pugs. I started taking care of my friend Catherine’s pug Lucy ten years ago. Since then I have borrowed Lucy to campaign for President in the 2008 elections, taken her in a ladybug costume to the Hotel Monaco’s Halloween Doggy Happy Hour, gotten pictures of her taken with Santa at the Olde Towne School for Dogs, visited the vet’s with her when she had respiratory pneumonia, and sat outside on King Street with her to indulge her love for meeting people. She is more patient than any dog should be when it comes to wearing Halloween or other costumes because she knows it will get her the attention a tiny-pawed diva deserves. Lucy always makes people smile.
When Catherine, who has a large heart, started taking in foster pugs several years ago, I became acquainted with a bewildering variety of other funny, endearing pugs and their typical behaviors. At that time, if there were an equivalent of Pug Hill in Old Town, Alexandria, it would probably be Catherine’s place, particularly when the pug rescue organization once dropped off nine dogs who were all there to be picked up by different foster parents.
Comedian Russell Brand once described narcotics as “a warm, cuddly hug that will ruin your life.” Pugs are just as addictive, but as Alison Pace writes in her novels, they can make your life ever so much richer, sweeter, and fuller. To quote another great t-shirt slogan, “Pugs, Not Drugs.”
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer