Forging a friendship through the loss of their pets, a group of people band together, gathering daily to watch for their dogs, now a wild pack roaming the woods. Occasionally the animals range within sight but always return to the obscurity of natural cover, their dejected owners disappointed, only to return the following day to resume their vigil.
In this strange tale of yearning, belonging and rejection, hope is a primary element of these temporary friendships. Another is powerlessness, as all these animals were sent into the woods by others - parents, friends, those with the power to take the animals away from their owners. The nightly meeting at the edge of the woods becomes a ritual, the group making gestures of friendship to one another, pairing off.
Alice is lonely, vulnerable; it is through her perspective that we view the others, the enigmatic lover she enjoys for so brief a time, relinquished almost as soon as the words are spoken; the emotionally damaged painter, Malcolm, who offers Alice a temporary home; the stray boy, Jamie, battling the frustrations of adolescence and unhappiness at home with youthful bravado; and the helpless Lily, her innocence a terrible trap that will betray her.
The wild dogs symbolize impermanence, the futility of ownership, though many are fooled into believing otherwise: “Love is like… wild dogs. If it hunts you down, it will not let you go.” For these few weeks of waiting and watching, time is suspended until reality intrudes, shattering the fragile bonds of friendship and casting doubt on the connections these people have made.
To her credit, Alice appreciates the nature of the attractions between these strangers - the rebellious boy, the brain-damaged young woman, the confused artist and the research biologist: they are all afraid of the people who have the power to send their dogs into the void. Naturally, they navigate toward shared comfort: “Because we had all suffered the same loss, we bonded with an immediacy that I now realize was premature and foolish.”
The primary focus of the novel, Alice falls hopelessly in love with the research biologist, fashioning a romance that may not be all that she hopes for. The most unsettled by the experience, the loss of her lover leaves Alice desolate once more: “I lay down with dying in my bones. I lay down under the sweet, anxious sorrow of you.” Yet the others are equally tormented by their private demons, self-doubt and an atavistic yearning to join the animals in their freedom.
Fate intervenes, shattering the connections these strangers have wrought, forcing all to relinquish their dreams of recovery, changed by unexpected events that violate the imperturbability of the wilderness. Each member of the group leaves an imprint upon a short season of life at the edge of the woods, but it is Alice who is most affected, embracing the future, her spirit expanded: “The heart is a wild and fugitive creature. The heart is a dog who comes home.”