The Summer of Berg

I’m in an Elizabeth Berg state of mind.

I recently finished my third Elizabeth Berg novel of the summer (okay, it’s almost November, I get it. I’m having trouble letting go of summer; I have trouble letting go of things, period), all given to me by the same friend. Now, if I’ve ever read anything Elizabeth Berg-ish before this past summer, I don’t remember—and you’d think I would, she’s quite prolific. I looked at Berg’s list of titles this morning, but nothing set off bells (though I wouldn’t set any great store by this).

I often think things are given to us, or arrive, or are placed in our path when they can serve or enlighten or comfort us most. When we are ready.

Without realizing, I’d been ready for the summer of Berg. 

The title of this latest Berg foray is Home Safe, and the blurb on the front cover, by Booklist, reads, “Berg is a tender and enchanting storyteller … A keen and funny observer, she is the poet of kindness.”

All three of the Berg novels I’ve read are about loss of a spouse; or more specifically, a way of life, a state of being; in a way, a slice of identity—or, another way of putting it, a loss of “home” in the metaphorical sense—that safe place—we all know what our safe place is (hopefully), whether it be that lost spouse, or friend, or our dog, where we’re so completely known and accepted and valued, all pretenses and defenses and drama and airs checked at the door, please, only authenticity wanted and allowed here. That’s it, that’s the safe place. That’s home.   

Berg’s books are not sad books. Her characters are not tedious. They are interesting, human and real, and Booklist is right: Berg is the poet of kindness. An incisive poet of kindness, to be more exact. She is not sappy or pithy, and she doesn’t hurry healing along. Doesn’t even tell you that healing is on the guest list. But she invites this unnamed thing in, in the guise of opportunity and new challenge (and, yes, even risk), and she sits it down, makes it feel at home. She wants it to stay a while, get to know it, not fight or challenge it, and so she sets up a conducive environment for it, surrounding herself and her characters with the right (healthy) people, and humor and gentle insight and compassion. No lectures are allowed. Only windbags lecture, anyway (something Berg’s probably already written about).

There are no easy answers in Berg’s books; no homegrown recipe for healing, no pie-in-the-sky how-to manual—but there’s unlimited acceptance and there is the unspoken awareness that we are all, at one time or another, feeling our way home, safe.   

And there is comfort in that; in that we’re in this life together. And we’re in it to mend (and, yes, we can mend); to rebuild, to keep moving, to thrive, not by burying loss and hurt or nurturing it, or distracting it by inciting drama, but by inviting healing in (and by showing all dismissive, lecturing, moralizing, whiny, self-aggrandizing know-it-all loser windbags the door—okay, those were my words, not Berg’s).

I typed up the following passage from Home Safe, and put it on the fridge:

“She sits down and puts her hand to her chest and rocks. Thinks of all she has lost and will lose. All she has had and will have. It seems to her that life is like gathering berries in an apron with a hole. Why do we keep on? Because the berries are beautiful, and we must eat to survive. We catch what we can. We walk past what we lose for the promise of more, just ahead.”    

Love this.

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Falling in Love Again

I am big-time in love, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt this way.

For the longest time (since even before The Angry Woman Suite came out in March, and my husband’s death in May), I’ve been reading only magazines before falling asleep at night—no time for the commitments books require (and this from someone who at one point routinely read 4-5 books a week—geez, did I have no other life back then?).

And then a friend handed me a copy of Elizabeth Berg’s The Year of Pleasures (pub. 2005), and I’ve been head over heels ever since. That I actually starting reading it is a bit of a miracle, since I try not to read novels when I’m working on my own stuff (I don’t want to subconsciously pick up another author’s voice).    

It’s a little book—but I actually do think most “miracles” are small, overlooked things—about a youngish woman—Betta—whose husband has just died. Okay, connection right away. But instead of being a pedantic, tear-your-heart-out story, this one is about renewal; about a woman moving to a small town with the goal of finding pleasure in “simple daily routines.”

It’s about reclaiming life—without claiming to have answers for anyone else. It’s about choice, as in it’s up to each of to choose contentment (over misery), and how we get from miserable to content is highly individualized. (Perfect for me. I hate when a book—or person!—thinks it’s the oracle of all things for everyone—it’s  just way too dang condescending, not to mention boring as all get out.)   

The prose is gorgeously simple. It had me about seven pages in (about Betta’s husband’s terminal cancer), at this:

“Near the end, I started looking for signs that the inevitable would not be inevitable … I watched the few leaves that refused to give up their greens to the demands of the season. I took comfort in the way the sun shone brightly on a day they predicted rain—not a cloud in the sky! I even tried to formulate messages of hope in arrangements of coins on the dresser top—look how they had landed all heads up, what were the odds?”

“Oh, I know, I know!” I wanted to comfort Betta, an instant sister of my heart.

But I couldn’t of course, and my comfort wasn’t needed anyway, as this sister of mine was already miles ahead of me. Instead I (and Baby Rae) curled up together on our new-to-us antique bed (a simple pleasure), cradled by plump lavender and green pillows (more pleasures), and we let Elizabeth Berg’s Betta show us the rest of her path and her new relationships, and we watched her revive old ones; and I cheered Betta on when she opened a new shop in her new town—c’mon, didn’t we all love playing “store” when we were kids?—and at the end of this deceptively simple and lovely book I was fulfilled and grateful when Berg wrapped these final comforting words around me, about contradictions:

“I thought of rich men who were poor; poor men who were rich; ascetics who lived with nothing so as to have everything. I thought of how ‘lost love’ is a misnomer, for love is never lost at all but only different in appearance, conforming with that well-known law of physics. John used to tell me that there was grace in mathematics and romance in physics. In this, as in so many things, he was exactly right.”

I hugged Berg’s book when I finished—literally. And considered that this is why many of us read.

I thought back on all the novels—okay, not all—that have given me something, starting with Alcott’s Eight Cousins, when I was nineish, about family—Oh, so that’s how it’s supposed to work! I remember thinking—to Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind when I was eleven, about war and love at odds and never giving up, and Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird of course, and … well, the list is endless, all the books that have formed me; taught me, and got me to thinking, and even, sometimes, brought me community. Berg’s small book, The Year of Pleasures, has been added to my list.

And it’s a new day.

(and blog tour starts tomorrow)