Dot & Ralfie – Amy Hoffman (University of Wisconsin Press)

Dorothy “Dot” Greenbaum and Rafaela “Ralfie” Santopietro, the two eponymous characters of Amy Hoffman’s latest novel, are two old-school dykes from Boston, a classic femme-butch pair who have been together for more than thirty years. An elementary school librarian and worker for the Boston Department of Public Works, respectively, they have built a comfortable life together: stable jobs, a condo with a modest mortgage, a small circle of friends and family; a life that comes crashing down around them after Ralfie has a long-delayed knee replacement surgery. Their third-floor walk-up suddenly seems less charming to both Ralfie and Dot, who has a heart attack not long after Ralfie’s surgery. They begin exploring options: Dot’s younger sister Susan tries to convince them to move into, not an “old folks home,” but rather a “condo development” in an outer suburb; the idea appeals to no one but Susan. Dot investigates an antiseptic senior housing development nearby (with an elevator), but they simultaneously earn too much to qualify as low income and too little to afford the place at market share. Even a condo at the high-rise where Viola, a work colleague,and sometime lover of Dot’s, lives is out of the question (Viola acknowledges that even she couldn’t afford to buy her own condo now). Then Ralfie, back at work, falls out of a small tree and is hospitalized again….

The above plot synopsis sounds dire, but it reflects a grim reality that many LGBTQ+ seniors currently or will have to face: how do they remain independent, and “age in place” outside of the usual heteronormative structures? Not that it is necessarily guaranteed to be easier for non-Gay seniors to do the same, but Dot and Ralfie have no adult children to assist them—at least their marriage is recognized as such.  And even having a supportive community of friends and family can quickly look like meddling. I will say that everything eventually works out for everyone involved, although, as in so much of life, the route to that outcome is by no means easy or straightforward.

As serious as the narrative gets, Hoffman injects enough wry humor into the story to keep it from becoming a total downer. For example, the condo development that Susan tries to convince Dot and Ralfie to move to (and which she eventually moves to instead) is named “Maple Grove”–everyone except Susan refers to it as “Maple Grave.” And a comment made by one of the characters about Route 95 disrupting the laws of Einsteinian physics will surely make any native Bostonian readers laugh out loud.

As bad as things get for Dot and Ralfie, things would have been infinitely worse for either of them without the other: for despite the bickering, misunderstandings, even outright infidelity, it is clear to us –and to them—that they love each other and are deeply committed to each other, and will do whatever they can to make their lives work. (Well, except for moving to Maple Grave, of course.) Ostensibly this novel is about overcoming the obstacles facing LGBTQ+ seniors; in truth it is about how much easier it is to be resilient in life with supportive family, friends, and co-workers.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske


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