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Carolyn Parkhurst sits at a table by the door of a Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. It’s one of her regular writing spots, and, as usual, she has her laptop with her. None of the other patrons seem to recognize her, but that may change soon: Parkhurst just embarked on a national book tour for her debut novel, The Dogs of Babel, which hit bookstore shelves June 13.

In recent weeks, glossy magazines including Elle and Glamour have added the title to their summer must-read lists. Esquire counted the book as one of “34 Reasons to Be Optimistic About 2003.” Can a visit with Oprah be far off?

The Dogs of Babel is the story of Paul Iverson, a straitlaced linguistics professor whose vivacious and artsy wife, Lexy, falls to her death one day in their back yard. The only witness is their dog, Lorelei. To uncover the cause of Lexy’s death, Iverson decides to teach Lorelei how to talk. Searching for conclusions, he reminisces about his marriage, from the couple’s courtship through the morning of Lexy’s fall. The result is a moving portrait of marriage and of grief.

Parkhurst says the idea for the novel developed gradually. She started out wanting to write about a widower. “I tend to write about sad things,” she says. “Grief is this universal thing that everyone has to deal with sooner or later. For me, a lot of writing is about fears….It’s a bit of a mystery to me how people lose someone they love and come out the other end.”

Even after Parkhurst worked up a plot outline, she felt something was missing: “I wanted the grief to force Paul to take a 180-degree turn.” She happened upon a paper she had written for a grad-school lit class—a fake-academic history of an effort to teach dogs to talk. “I liked the tone,” she says. “I thought, Maybe I can make it believable.”

Parkhurst based the relationship between Paul and Lorelei in part on her own relationship with Chelsea, a Shetland sheepdog who died three years ago. “People and their dogs aren’t written about very interestingly,” she says. “Everybody who has had a dog looks at it and wonders, What is he getting out of this experience?”

But Parkhurst didn’t want to write Chelsea herself into the book. “She was nervous and small,” the author says. “I thought it would seem ridiculous if [Paul] is trying to teach this tiny little dog to talk. I needed a nobler dog.” One day she saw a woman walking a Rhodesian Ridgeback, and she knew she had found her Lorelei.

Being a novelist has been Parkhurst’s lifelong ambition. “I never thought of doing anything else,” she says. When she was 3 years old, she dictated her first story to her mother; called “The Table Family,” it was about, well, a family of tables. After graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in English, she earned an MFA at American University. Among her influences, she lists Michael Chabon and Paul Auster.

Parkhurst is working on a second novel, and she had her first book signing in May, at the Book Expo America trade fair in Los Angeles. She signed about 70 copies of Dogs in the course of an hour. “Most people hadn’t read it,” she says; many had been persuaded to stop by Little, Brown publicists offering free books. Still, she thinks of it as a success—and among her first concessions to that status, she says, is a streamlined signature. “It was taking me too long to write it out.” —Annys Shin