A Three Dog Life
About the book:
When Abigail Thomas’s husband, Rich, was hit by a car, his brain shattered. Subject to rages, terrors, and hallucinations, he must live the rest of his life in an institution. He has no memory of what he did the hour, the day, the year before. This tragedy is the ground on which Abigail had to build a new life. How she built that life is a story of great courage and great change, of moving to a small country town, of a new family composed of three dogs, knitting, and friendship, of facing down guilt and discovering gratitude. It is also about her relationship with Rich, a man who lives in the eternal present, and the eerie poetry of his often uncanny perceptions. This wise, plainspoken, beautiful book enacts the truth Abigail discovered in the five years since the accident: You might not find meaning in disaster, but you might, with effort, make something useful of it.
About the author:
ABIGAIL THOMAS is the author of Safekeeping, a memoir, as well as a novel and two story collections. She lives in Woodstock, New York, and teaches at the New School.
1. Discuss the book’s title and epigraph in the context of your own life. What is the coldest night you have survived? What “dogs” helped you through it?
2. Throughout her memoir, Abigail Thomas describes the bittersweet experience of hearing her husband articulate echoes of their life together, although he is fundamentally changed, sometimes even angry and paranoid, as a result of his traumatic brain injury. What unique challenges does one face when watching a loved one slip into an altered state of mind due to injury or illness? How must the grieving process change as well?
3. Thomas tells us that she and Rich fell in love fast, becoming engaged within two weeks after they met. What aspects of their life together demonstrated a deep level of compatibility? By contrast, how did they address the sometimes tremendous differences between their habits and personalities? How did Rich’s injury shape the nature of their marriage?
4. Thomas makes a distinction between having phobias and being a fearful person. How would you characterize her version of courage? In what way do specific fears (such as her dread of being alone in an elevator) help us understand our greatest vulnerabilities?
5. Harry is the first dog Thomas introduces us to in the book. He was present at the time of Rich’s accident and provided immediate comfort to Thomas in the days that followed. Why are some of us drawn to having pets, while others can’t relate to this urge? What distinguishes the loyalty and affection of an animal from that of another human being?
6. In A Three Dog Life Thomas conveys both the stress of coping with an uncertain future and the guilt she often experienced while navigating her husband’s care. Discuss the various kinds of advice she received throughout Rich’s ordeal. Ultimately, what were the best forms of solace and relief?
7. Thomas describes Rosie as a dachshund-whippet mix born from “a union that must have come with an instruction sheet,” while the sometimes-in-heat hound, Carolina Bones, was “gangly and goofy, with a lugubrious expression that gave her a kind of ridiculous dignity.” How do Harry, Rosie, and Carolina complement each other? What specific types of consolation is each dog able to give Thomas?
8. How does Thomas approach the subject of memory? What characterizes her own recollections, from her earliest days with her parents to more recent memories? What was Rich able to recall after his accident? What does his injury teach Thomas about the tandem between the mind and memory?
9. In “Outsider Art,” Thomas describes her growing obsession with various visual artists. What do her chosen artists indicate about the way she sees the world in general? What parallels exist between her art collection and the way A Three Dog Life is crafted? How is her treatment of time and imagery different from that of other authors?
10. Like the vignettes that form this memoir, the chapter titles reflect simplicity, precision, and candor. Read together, what essential aspects of life are summarized in Thomas’s chapter titles, ranging from “How to Break Up a Dogfight” to “The Magnificent Frigate Bird” to “Home”?
11. How did you react to Thomas’s recollections of Rich’s premonitory abilities, including his haunting references to the long-lost relative Edward Butterman? Have you ever had similar experiences? How can they be explained (or should we even try)?
12. What notions of motherhood are prominent in A Three Dog Life? What significant observations are captured in the story of Crystal, and its placement in the chapter called “NO”?
13. How do Thomas’s descriptions of the city compare to those of her life in the country? What is resolved by her relinquishment of the apartment where she had lived for so many years? In your life, what homes reflect your most significant chapters?
14. Discuss the book’s closing lines, which follow a return to the night of Rich’s accident. What beauty exists in his ability to forget, and to experience their life as “so easy that the days glide by”? In what way are we both enriched and burdened by the ability to remember?
15. Thomas’s previous memoir, Safekeeping, was written before Rich’s accident and contains tributes to the newfound joy she experienced when he became part of her life. Read together, what complete story do these two books tell? What storytelling traits distinguish Thomas’s works, both fiction and nonfiction?
16. Thomas is an acclaimed writing instructor, often saying that her own impulse to write helps her process powerful life experiences. If you were to write a memoir, which years or events would you want to focus on? What people, pets, or places would figure most prominently?