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The Stuff That Never Happened

The Stuff That Never Happened

4.0 71
by Maddie Dawson

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What if you were married to a wonderful husband for twenty-eight years but in love with another man? What if you were in love with them both?
Annabelle McKay knows she shouldn’t have any complaints. She’s been in a stable marriage that’s lasted almost three decades and has provided her with two wonderful children, thousands of


What if you were married to a wonderful husband for twenty-eight years but in love with another man? What if you were in love with them both?
Annabelle McKay knows she shouldn’t have any complaints. She’s been in a stable marriage that’s lasted almost three decades and has provided her with two wonderful children, thousands of family dinners around a sturdy oak table, and a husband so devoted that he schedules lovemaking into his calendar every Wednesday morning. Other wives envy the fact that Grant is not the type of man who would ever cheat on her or leave her for a younger woman. The trouble is Annabelle isn’t sure she wants to be married to Grant anymore. The trouble is she’s still in love with someone else.
In the early tumultuous years of her marriage, Annabelle carried on a clandestine affair with the one person whose betrayal would hurt her husband the most. When it ended, she and Grant found their way back together and made a pact that they would never speak of that time again. But now years later, with her children grown and gone, and an ominous distance opening between them, she can’t help but remember those glorious, passionate days and wonder if she chose the right man.
Then, when called to New York City to help care for her pregnant daughter, Annabelle bumps into her old lover. Offered a second chance at an unforgettable love, she must decide between the man who possesses her heart and the husband who has stood squarely by her side. A journey into the what-ifs that haunt us all, The Stuff That Never Happened is an intricate, heartfelt examination of modern marriage that brims with truths about the nature of romantic love.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] deceptively bouncing, ultimately wrenching novel [that] will grab you at page one....The phrase 'summer read' seems invented for this debut."

"Nicely written...enjoyable prose and keen characterization."
Publishers Weekly

“Both tender and exquisite, Maddie Dawson’s triumphant debut, The Stuff That Never Happened, is a pitch-perfect look into the choices we made in our past and the consequences that they carry long into the future. I loved every page.”
—Allison Winn Scotch, New York Times bestselling author of The One That I Want
"The Stuff That Never Happened is unlike a lot of novels I read - I was never quite sure what was going to happen, and in that way, I found it compelling and compulsive to read.  Often when I'm halfway through a book, I'm fairly certain of the characters' paths.  This time, the lives encountered were surprising, illuminating, and always believable."
—Susan Straight, author of A Million Nightingales
“What a joy it is to discover Maddie Dawson. In the best storytelling tradition of writers like Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, Dawson delivers a fast-paced, unflinching, often hilarious novel about the challenges of love, parenthood, and staying true to yourself in a marriage.”
—Holly Robinson, author of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir
“'I can admit that I went there hungry for the drama of him, that I craved that heightened sense of loving and being loved again,' Maddie Dawson's middleaged heroine confesses.  In trying to make sense of one married woman's relationship to her old flame, The Stuff That Never Happened is a paean to family happiness as much as romance.”
—Stewart O'Nan, author of Songs for the Missing

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.80(w) x 11.04(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt



I started crying at Crisenti's yesterday, over by the frozen foods. This was not cinematic, attractive weeping either; it was full-frontal, nose-running, eyes-streaming near-blubbering. I had to pull my cart over to the side of the meat case while I searched through the lint in my coat pocket for a tissue.

I could not begin to tell you why this happened now, except to say that it's February in New Hampshire, which if you ask me might be reason enough to break down. It's been six months since Nicky went off to college and Sophie got married, and somehow on an ordinary Monday afternoon at the supermarket, it all caught up with me. I'd made it through Christmas all right, and the first anniversary of my mother's death, and then through the season's first eighteen snowstorms—and suddenly I was crying about all of it: how life is never going to be the same as it was when the children were home, and how Grant has never forgiven me for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago, and how I have somehow gotten to be almost fifty years old and all I have to show for it is a bunch of picture books.

Picture books! That makes them sound dignified, like art perhaps. But I'm talking board books—the kind with animals dressed up like people. Pigs in dresses! An aardvark who wears plaid scarves! I've just finished illustrating a book about a mama squirrel trying to get her babies to go to bed. And you know the weird part, the thing that Grant would never believe? I love this mother squirrel. I love the fact that I painted her wearing a yellow workout suit and that when she was nestled on her little couch reading to her babies, she looked radiantly happy in a very non-rodent way.

Remembering that, I had to put my hand over my mouth so the sobs wouldn't escape.

"Mrs. McKay?" said the boy behind the meat counter. Not a boy—he's a man, really. He was one of Sophie's friends. He had been at our house dozens of times over the years, one of the hordes of young people who were always there playing basketball in the driveway, skating on the pond, eating dinner, even sleeping over. He had the lead in the school play the year Sophie was a sophomore. Brad, that's his name. Brad Simeon.

And because young people should not have to see the older generation falling apart and guess what's in store for themselves, I straightened myself up out of the collapsed-crazy-lady position.

He smiled, wanted to know if I was okay. Perhaps the pork chops weren't to my satisfaction?

I looked down at the package of two thin, gray pork chops I was holding in my hand and actually laughed. Do they see a lot of that in grocery stores—people breaking down in tears of disappointment over the meat products? I said they were just fine, perfectly wonderful, and then he asked how Sophie was getting along, and regaining my footing, I launched automatically into my proud motherly spiel: Oh, she's just fine! Married, yes, and living in New York, and pregnant now, actually. Did he know? Yes, I'm going to be a grandmother. Why, thank you—no, I don't feel old enough to be a grandmother, but in our family, we reproduce young, ha-ha.

And Nicky?

Mother spiel number two: Oh, so happy at the university! Doing winter hiking just now, and yes, still playing hockey—can barely get that boy to open a book, he's so busy with the other things (I don't say we suspect girls, drinking, and drugs) but he'll learn. Just hope he doesn't get kicked out before he figures out he's there to get an education! I gave a good imitation of my whattaya-gonna-do laugh.

Just then, thank goodness, Brad's boss called him back to the ground beef machine, and he shrugged and smiled and slipped back into that little brightly lit, glassed-in room they have for the meat guys. "Tell Professor McKay hello," he said as he left, but by then he was turned the other way, so when my eyes filled up with tears again, he didn't have to see.

So I tell my therapist about it, pork chops and all. (Therapists like to be notified of any public breakdowns, you know.) Ava Reiss is her name. I've been seeing her for just over a year, ever since my mother died, and we sit together once a week examining all the mundane and not-so-mundane incidents of my life, like two ladies sorting through mismatched socks. I am always just about to tell her that I'm not coming anymore, that this isn't really working, but then I keep on.

"You cried in the grocery store?" she says. "And what were you feeling?"

"Well, for starters, it was embarrassing."

"No, I mean why did you start crying then, do you think? What did the pork chops represent?" She is about forty-five and has straight brown hair, and she wears cashmere sweaters and long skirts with tights that always match her sweaters. I think that says something about her personality. You have to be a very conscientious shopper to get sweaters and tights that match, don't you think? Once I told her that it makes me uncomfortable that she won't ever let herself laugh at any of my jokes, and she said that I use humor to deflect real feelings, and I said, "So? What do you suggest I use?" which she didn't appreciate.

"The pork chops . . . the pork chops, I think, represented, ah . . . dinner?" I say, and she purses her lips as though I'm deflecting again, so I explain that dinner is a topic fraught with complicated feelings for me. Dinner, you see, was the time I always loved the best. We were the family in the neighborhood with the house where all the kids congregated. Every community has a house like that; who knows how it happens, how kids discover they can go there and have a social center, and maybe a second home, but they just do. For years that was our place. I felt so privileged, so honored to be there orchestrating it. I loved the noise and the music and even all the complications. We had—actually, we have—a long oak dining room table, scarred and beat-up but beautiful because of those scars, and it was always heaped up with homework and art projects and science labs, costume-making projects, wonderful jumbles of clutter and chaos . . . and I'd be there in the middle of it all, listening to the kids talking and gossiping and teasing each other while I worked on my book illustrations and cooked, and then I'd push everything aside and bring out a pot of chili or big platters of eggplant Parmesan, blue bowls of chicken soup, spaghetti, pots of my spicy beef stew, homemade bread and rolls. There was something bustling and safe about the big kitchen, the light and the noise, the table and the laughter.

I try to explain to her how this—being the neighborhood house—had been new to me, like nothing I'd experienced growing up. I was born and raised in Southern California, in endless acres of a subdivision consisting of stucco four-bedroom houses, all built just yesterday and all with sliding glass doors and swimming pools and kids drag racing down the streets and never congregating anywhere. This whole small-town New Hampshire quaintness was something I thought existed only in the movies. But Grant grew up here, in the very house we now live in, playing hockey, sledding, and skiing, and for him, this is just what normal means: a mom and a dad, two kids, a clapboard house, ice skates hanging in the mudroom, a woodstove, rocking chairs on the porch.

Meant. What normal meant. We are now finished with that phase of normal, and, if he has anything to say about it, I fully expect we are going to turn into his parents any day now. Now we're the older couple who lives in the old McKay house—the farmhouse with the curvy road, the apple orchard, the pond, the barn and the gate that never closes right because the hinge is perpetually and heartrendingly broken, a symbol of all that never will be fixed.

Everything is different now, I say to Ava Reiss. I don't recognize my life anymore. We sit there in the silence of her office, listening to the sleet clicking against the gray windowpane.

"Look, I know what you're thinking," I tell her. "You think I'm just feeling sorry for myself, when that's not it at all. I read the women's magazines. I know that people who are about to turn fifty can do anything they want to do. Apparently women today are supposed to stop menstruating and use all that extra time we no longer need for changing tampons to go and cure cancer or something. Grant says I now have time to do my art, like I should just stop doing children's books and, I don't know, start doing Picassos or something. Like he thinks this is something I've just been waiting to get around to but couldn't because I had to cook dinner every night."

She taps her pen against a pad of paper she has on her lap. "You know, Annabelle, people sometimes use this time to reconnect with their husbands. After all, isn't he actually going through the same experience you are?"

And bingo, there we are: staring right smack at the problem. It's not the stupid pork chops, it's not the stupid book illustrations; it's that I'm lonely. Grant—my so-called partner and fellow survivor of the parenting years—is not going through the same thing at all, or at least you'd never know it. He has taken this time to throw himself into writing a book, and by "throw himself," I mean that he has no time for me or for anything else. He's living and breathing the history of a factory from the turn of the last century. I think if you took an MRI of my husband's brain right now, all you would see would be factory ledgers and chapter headings and pages and pages of footnotes having to do with the wording on picket signs.

I wake in the mornings to hear him already typing away in his study, and then he stays up until the middle of the night reading over his day's work and grimacing while he clears his throat and makes little dissatisfied grunting noises. You'd think it was physically painful for him to read his own sentences.

Even dinner, once the time of connection and togetherness and—okay, I'm trying not to use the word communion here, but I see I have to—even dinner has lost its sense of communion and has gone silent and cold. There we are, looking like refugees, huddled over our plates, wordlessly picking at our food. It's not surprising that the thought of dinner would make a person weep over the pork chops in the grocery store. I've had to take to playing Miles Davis CDs just to keep the sound of our silverware from clinking me into a full-blown depression.

Last night, after I'd timed the silence at twelve whole minutes, I said to him, "So, do you have any memory at all of our previous life? You know, raising children and all that?"

He swam up from Factory World, blinking like somebody returning from very far away, and looked at me in surprise. He reached for a roll and said drily, "I remember that one of them—a girl, right?—had a name that started with an S, is that correct?" He furrowed his brow and cleared his throat. "And wait. Wasn't there also a boy?"

I was so pleased to see something of his old sense of humor that I smiled. "Why, yes," I said. "The girl is Sophie, and the boy is Nick. He used to sit right where you're sitting. Often spilled his milk. Quite often, actually."

"Ohhh, yes. And what's become of them, do you suppose?" he said, and we had a decent, even playful conversation for a couple of minutes, during which I pretended to remind him that Sophie is now twenty-three and got married last summer in our backyard ("Remember the pretty lanterns?") and that Nicky is a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, off spilling his milk in a college cafeteria now, surrounded by jocks of every description and possibly lots of admiring girls, too.

"And Sophie is going to have a baby in the spring!" I said, and he actually laughed and said, "No kidding! But how is that possible, when she's still a baby herself?"

"I know." I really was caught up in the playacting then, and I added, perhaps unwisely: "But—well, and this is a little bit sad—she's living alone in New York just now." It's true: Whit, her husband, is in Brazil working on a documentary film he'd signed up to do before she got pregnant—something they had been planning to do together. When the pregnancy was confirmed it was too late for him to back out, and so he went ahead, with her permission.

From the way Grant's face flushed, I knew right away this had been a mistake, taking the conversation back down this road, with all its dangerous twists and turns. It occurred to me that maybe I had done it on purpose, to get at least some reaction from him. He said, "What brain chip has to be missing for that idiot not to know that when your wife is carrying a child you don't take off across the world?"

So I said my usual thing, which is that Sophie and Whit will be fine, and he'll be back in time for the birth, and that it's all none of our business.

But by then he was finished with his dinner, and I could see the curtain coming down in his eyes. He'd said his allotted number of words for the whole month, probably, and so he went mute again, pecked me on the cheek with his skinny, dry lips, and headed back upstairs to wrestle with chapter four. I cleaned up the kitchen, turned off the lights, and then went up to my study in the attic, where I sat down at the computer and messaged with both kids, hearing about Sophie's nausea and backache and about Nicky's excited plan to hike in the snow next weekend.

"Are you being careful?" I typed to him, and he responded: That's supposed to be an answer.

When I joined Grant a couple of hours later with our tea, he was still pecking away and humming. He stopped for a moment and sighed, and then he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes before reaching up to accept the china cup I was holding out.

"How's it coming?" I said, and he shrugged and read me the last
Daws_9780307393678_3p_all_r3.qxp:. 4/22/10 4:29 AM Page 7
8 Ma d d i e Daws o n paragraph, something about the speech the foreman made during the strike of 1908.
“It’s good,” I said.

“No, it isn’t. It doesn’t sing.”

“It’s the history of labor relations, honey. That wouldn’t sing even if you goosed it with a stick.”

“I have goosed it with sticks.”

“Well, there you go. It won’t sing.” I started giving him a shoulder massage, which he tolerated silently, still squinting at the page. “How does this feel?” I said. “Is this where the knot is?”

He was silent.

“No, I feel it now. It’s more over here, isn’t it? This is where your neck gets so tight when you’re writing.” I kneaded with my thumbs until he moaned, tilted his head back a little, and closed his eyes.

“You know what I just realized?” I said. “I figured out the thing I really miss about not having the children here.”


“When you have kids around, you have to do things that you maybe don’t want to do, but they turn out to be fun. Like sledding.

Nobody goes sledding unless they have a kid with them. But that’s stupid. We could go sledding ourselves. You know that? We’re not so old, and we have the sleds. Some weekend afternoon, we should take some time off from all this . . . stuff, and just go outside and sled down the hill a few times. Like we used to do.”

“Sledding? Are you kidding me?” This, from the man who would drag us outside during even the coldest winter days to make sure we got the maximum potential out of every snowfall.

“Yeah. Wouldn’t it be fun?”

“Why don’t you just go sledding by yourself?”

I kneaded the neck muscle a bit harder than necessary. “Now there’s a depressing thought. Sledding alone. It’s worse than bowling alone, and a guy wrote a book about how pathetic that is.”

He pulled away with a grimace. “Annabelle, perhaps you haven’t really noticed, but I have a book to write. Do you not see these stacks of papers and this calendar up here with the pages flipping past? I’m hardly a person who’s looking for other things to do right now. And I have to get back to it, if you don’t mind.”

“No, of course I don’t mind. It’s just that I think we need to have fun sometimes, too.”

“This is the new fun,” he said. He snorted and returned to his typing—he uses the hunt-and-peck method, which causes him to look slightly alarmed as he writes, as though he suspects the letters might have moved since he last looked—and I stood there next to him, sipping my tea and watching our reflection in the window. It was one of those picturesque scenes, with snow clumped charmingly along the panes like in a movie about winter, and we seemed so gleaming there in the safe, yellow lamplight of his study, standing together like in a portrait, as if we were just slightly better than ourselves, safe and peaceful. Well—except that Grant was scowling, and his shoulders were holding his anger like a tensed coil, and you couldn’t quite see the big hole in my heart.

Meet the Author

MADDIE DAWSON is the author of Opposite of Maybe. She lives in Connecticut.

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The Stuff That Never Happened 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 71 reviews.
TalleyRoss More than 1 year ago
If it hadn't been for the language in this book I would have given it four stars. I'm picky in how much profanity I will tolerate in a book and this was one had a little too much. But putting that aside - I thought The Stuff That Never Happened was a very interesting look at marriage and extramarital affairs. An interesting look at what constitutes real solid love over the passionate, rip your clothes off kind of excitement. I found myself asking if the later was truly love or just an adrenaline rush. I found the portrayal of a long time marriage accurate and wonderfully portrayed. And found myself really rooting for Grant (the husband) even with his reserved understated personality (actually reminded me of my own husband). The pacing was good and the writing well done. There were moments of laughing, shaking my head at character's stupidity and moments of emotion as characters worked at and grew through their experiences. Overall a good read. If language doesn't bother you I would recommend it!
Seaside_Book_Nook More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I did not guess the end, but I can't tell you what I thought was going to happen, without giving away a big part of the book. The entire book kept taking different turns throughout the book. I loved how Annabelle stood up for herself and what she wanted. I liked the different extremes of her two children and how as a mother, she was able to relate to both of them. Unlike Grant, she was able to accept them for who they were and the choices they made. The book jumps back and forth between later seventies/early eighties and 2005. As the present is unfolding, the choices Annabelle makes are explained by reading about her past. I really liked this format and thought the author did an excellent job going back and forth and interweaving the story. I recommend you read this book. www.seasidebooknook.blogspot.com
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. The characters were developed well, and the story kept me interested. It was a typical love story, and talked about the difficulties in marriage that most people dont talk about. I would definitely recommend this book.
am_bling More than 1 year ago
This book is wonderfully written and relatable. A must-read!
EBarry More than 1 year ago
I liked the style of how this book was written. Was a fun, quick read, and I really liked it!
poosie More than 1 year ago
The characters were very believable and loveable. It's about relationships, parenting, lost loves, and aging. This book is about being in a long relationship and looking back with regrets of what could have been. I enjoyed the format, the way the author weaved the info into the story by flashbacking appropriately to explain why the characters felt the way they did. Annabelle and Grant were married for thirty years and were feeling the empty-nest syndrome. Annabelle proves her statement, 'It is possible to love two men," to be true. The essence of a twenty-six year old affair lingers to cause much trepidation and longing. Annabelle finds herself face to face with Jeremiah in a store the two used to visit together. If you are one who watches BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY over and over again..this book will be just the thing for you!
OurBookAddiction More than 1 year ago
So many emotions…I loved this. My first reaction was only a woman who has been married for many years may be able to relate to this story. As someone who describes this, I found this an emotional read. It really isn’t a story about young love, more of a reflection of how love evolves over the years. Love doesn’t diminish, it simply evolves and becomes more complex and rich. Love becomes more than just passion and sex. If that is all a relationship is built on, it will not last…or survive. True and lasting love is what keeps bringing you home day after day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book! Very easy to read and I felt like I knew the characters. Great for anyone that realizes that life is not perfect.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book from beginning to end. The characters are well developed, and easy to relate to. I would definitely recommend this book.
HeatherNC More than 1 year ago
I fell immediately in love with this book and have been unable to put it down. It is filled with witty humor, genuine emotion, and fully relatable characters. You won't want it to end...I'm sad to almost be finished!
Heidi Hill More than 1 year ago
This would be a great book for a book club. I thought the author descibed the charactors and setting very well. Just an all around enjoyable book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've noticed a few reviewers have referred to this book as "chick lit" but that couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, this book is geared toward women and written from a woman's point of view weaving together her present day marriage that is experiencing the empty nest syndrome and a passionate affair that nearly destroyed her marriage some 26 years earlier. However, because I associate chick lit with somewhat dim, but loveable women, whose main interests are shopping and "winning" the guy and living happily ever after, this doesn't fit that genre. The story here is much more complicated and weighty--think Anita Shreve, or better yet, Wally Lamb's "She's Come Undone"--and stresses the reality that marriage is a complex, not always fulfilling, rarely perfect endeavor, where compromises are made all the time, but which has its rewards as well. Annabelle is no Cinderella, but Maddie Dawson makes it very possible to relate to her. A very worthy read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great story about relationships: marriage, and the relationships daughters and mothers have with each other. The story is more geared towards the perspective of women, and I think it is a must-read for anyone who is married, or who has ever experienced doubt in that marriage, or even in a relationship, or thought that her mother was so flawed that you could never be like that. It's just a great story and changed my perspective on a few things!
Jillzilla More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book, more than I thought I would. It's a great story with great characters and I love the way it examines such a common feeling within a marriage. I loved it!!
KER40 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book. It was a typical women finding out in her later years with grown kids that she maybe missed out on something that really wasn't there. Good...But not a Great read.
Anonymous 26 days ago
Anonymous 8 months ago
This read like a conversation with an old friend. I pictured having this conversation on a cold or rainy day catching up after years over coffee or wine. Very realistic. 290 pgs
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LorrieThomson More than 1 year ago
Maddie Dawson's The Stuff That Never Happens took me deep into the heart of Annabelle McKay, a middle-aged wife, mother, and artist, whose marriage survived her long-ago betrayal--and may once again be in jeopardy. How does love change through children, careers, tragedies? Would we even want a relationship to remain the same? Annabelle was so multi-layered and real that I couldn't help but adore her, despite her faults. Read this book! You'll be sad to turn the last page.
eagle3tx More than 1 year ago
Read this book . . . The book explores the differences between real love/respect and passionate obsession, as well as the ups, downs and compromises of a long marriage, growing up, taking responsibility for your choices, deciding what’s worth fighting for, and the relationships between mothers and daughters and their men. I really like this book on so many levels.  Even if it’s not your life you are reading about, you can identify with all the emotions going on.  The title of the book has several meanings.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very real down to life story. I loved Annabelle and will miss her greatly! I looked forward to reading this everyday! You won't be disappointed!
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