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There's a bittersweet love story behind author Patty Dann's sequel to 'Mermaids' [Hudson's Corner]

Hudson's Corner

By Kathy Hudson

9:19 AM EST, March 4, 2014

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On a recent Thursday evening, my husband and I went to The Ivy Bookshop to hear Patty Dann read from her latest novel, "Starfish" (Greenpoint Press, 2013). It's the sequel to Dann's novel "Mermaids," known to many through its popular movie adaptation starring Winona Ryder, Bob Hoskins, Christina Ricci and Cher.

When talking about her books, Dann said she likes quirky: quirky characters and quirky situations. That is certainly the case in "Mermaids," whose main character, a young Jewish girl, aspires to be a nun. 

Some might say Dann has come to live in the right place: the quirky Roland Park area. Neighborhood eccentricities have been made famous by Anne Tyler's many novels set in north Baltimore. 

Raised in Chappaqua, N.Y., Dann for decades lived in New York City.  She has not given up her residence there. She still teaches there, but she spends weekends in Baltimore with her husband of five years, Michael Hill. A native Georgian, Hill wrote for the Sunpapers for 35 years. He is currently senior writer for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore.

How the two met can be traced to one of Dann's nonfiction books, 2007's "The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (And Learning to Tell the Truth about It)."

This book chronicles the loss of Dann's husband of 10 years, an art historian, and the experience she and their young son had during his illness and after his death.

"The Goldfish Went on Vacation" is one of several books Hill read after the loss of his wife of 27 years, Nancy Forgione, an art historian and the mother of their two college-aged sons. Hill wrote about those books in a January 2007 essay in The Sun.

His essay ignited the beginning of his relationship with Dann. Dann's publisher sent her the essay. She emailed Hill about it late one night, and soon the two were engaged in regular email correspondence. For two months they emailed, and then Hill went to New York to see the theatrical adaptation of Joan Didion's book, "The Year of Magical Thinking." During that trip, he and Dann met at the Morgan Library. A little more than a year later, they married.

I have known Hill since before he and Forgione married. He was the television critic for The Evening Sun when I was a media rep for Maryland Public Television. I attended their wedding, drew the birth announcement for their first son, and celebrated their return to Baltimore and to Roland Park after Hills' tenure as The Sun correspondent in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Years later, early one December, morning my husband and I got a phone call from Forgione's Johns Hopkins University colleague, just hours after Hill and his boys lost Forgione, at age 54, from a sudden invasion of a meningococcal bacteria.  That sunny Sunday felt bitterly cold, much like the weather of this winter.

Temperatures warmed into the 50s last Thursday when Dann read from "Starfish." Michael Hill sat in the first row at the Ivy Bookshop, surrounded by many who have known him since his earliest days as a reporter.

Bookshop owner Ed Berlin, a Baltimorean, who has also lived in New York, said he had not expected so many to attend the reading. Dann said to my husband that as a New Yorker she marvels at so many long-term relationships in Baltimore. 

I had never thought about how many long-term relationships we have. It is easy to take them for granted. We know each other in multiple ways. We work together or volunteer together, but never live too far part. When something good or bad happens, we gather. Maybe the quirkiness of a city that feels like a small town is the glue holding us together. Welcome to Baltimore, Patty Dann.