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Is Robert Olen Butler's upcoming novel 'A Small Hotel' a bad idea?

March 30, 2011 |  9:51 am

AsmallhotelRobert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his novel, "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain." He's got a special professorship at Florida State in its creative writing program. And in 2007, he and his wife of 12 years split -- a bit too publicly.

Who wants the narrative of their breakup exposed to the world on Gawker? 

The backstory: in 1995, 50-year-old Butler married 32-year-old poet Elizabeth Dewberry in a fairly public New York wedding -- at Tavern on the Green, a story in the N.Y. Times' "Vows." When they split, Butler sent a very revealing email to graduate students and fellow professors that wound up on Gawker, was mentioned in the N.Y. Post's Page Six, and even hit TMZ. Here's part of the email Gawker posted:

Put down your cup of coffee or you might spill it.

Elizabeth is leaving me for Ted Turner.

She and I will remain the best of friends. She also knows about, endorses, and even encourages that I tell this much detail of the story:

She has spoken openly in her work and in her public life of the fact that she was molested by her grandfather from an early age, a molestation that was known and tacitly condoned by her radically Evangelical Christian parents. She then went into a decade-long abusive marriage. I met her when she was in a terminally desperate state from this lifetime of abuse, and we married and we truly loved each other.

I was able to help her a great deal. She says I saved her life. But de facto therapy as the initial foundation of a marriage eventually sucks the life out of a relationship. And it is very common for a woman to be drawn to men who remind them of their childhood abusers. Ted is such a man, though fortunately, he is far from being abusive. From all that I can tell, he is kind to her, loyal, considerate, and devoted to his family, and perhaps, therefore, he can redeem some things for her.

Further, Elizabeth has never been able to step out of the shadow of the Pulitzer.

Butler's story continued on Gawker that week as he sent two follow-up emails, first saying that the email was meant for people who knew him and Dewberry, and a second that explained their relationship even further. After that, the story had pretty much run its course.

Or had it? Butler's novel "A Small Hotel" will be published by Grove in July. And what's it about but ... a failed marriage. There's a preview review in the March 14 issue of Publishers Weekly, which calls it a "slight conventional drama":

Flashbacks tossed in under negligible pretexts give Michael and Kelly ample opportunity to ponder their history for the reader's edification, showing Michael to be a boorish void and Kelly a needy woman desperate for one romantic declaration. With few surprises and facile psychology (daddy issues abound), this insubstantial tale is at least easily digestible.

Uh oh: "daddy issues" and "facile psychology" don't sound so different from "it is very common for a woman to be drawn to men who remind them of their childhood abusers."

I haven't seen the book itself yet, but I can't help but think that after a very public breakup, writing a novel about a divorcing couple might be a bad idea.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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