November 19, 2003

Say When, a review

When I read Open House two years ago, I loved Elizabeth Bergís perfectly observed moments, revealing character and emotion obliquely but acutely. I reveled in so many moments as I read, nodding, saying ďyes,Ē and ďoh,Ē and ďmmm.Ē It was like warming my hands in front of the fire after coming inside from a snowstorm. Lovely. So when I picked up her newest book, Say When, I was anticipating more of the same. Not the same story, of course, but that sense of wonder, the mundane made revelatory. Lovely but simple language. All that.

Sadly, I didnít find much of that at all. Itís not that this is a bad book. Itís not. But itís like eating a solid and unexciting, slightly chemical-tasting Hostess cupcake rather than the freshly made, light as air Angel Food Cake feel of the first book.

Iím not sure if itís the subject matter: a woman says she wants a divorce. We see the entire thing from the husbandís POV. This may be problematic because his story isnít all that interesting. Grief can be, certainly, but this is not a man who thinks deeply, at least not until late in the book. And where his mind goes Ė imagining them together, she and her new paramour, for example Ė itís just not that fresh. And the way his wife explains the lack in their relationship, in him, as well as his own memories of their time together, well, a lot of it reads too generically.

I feel like Berg took the easy way out with a lot of this. The story is more internal than external, which is hard to pull off, because you damned well better make that internal life interesting and textured. And this wasnít, not nearly enough. The best part of the book, to my mind, was a subplot about what itís like to be a mall Santa. That felt original. That had life to it. Some of the rest did too, in spurts, but added up to not enough. The imagery also lacks the spark I expected. One of the best moments in the book is when he tosses his wedding ring into a field, a spur of the moment thing. And then immediately regrets it and goes scrabbling in the dark for it, only to come up empty handed. That I liked for the melodramatic gesture and the real pang that follows, that "oops, didn't mean to do that, can I take it back?" Other things stand out too, particularly secondary characters: a waitress, a restaurant owner, a fellow Santa. But not enough of the main character does. Heís a bit dull, poor fellow. And so the book is too.

Posted by Tamar at November 19, 2003 09:43 PM

Thanks for the review! I have read a lot of her books, but it's always all or nothing for me. I actually wasn't as taken with Open House as some of the others, but Range of Motion was pure poetry and I felt like Until the Real Thing Comes Along was my autobiography...

Posted by: Rachel at November 21, 2003 04:29 PM

Everyone seems to like Range of Motion best. I'll pick that up next, thanks, Rachel. Berg at her best is so delicious.

Posted by: Tamar at November 21, 2003 11:56 PM