Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why We Keep Reading

I started listening to Elizabeth Berg's novel Home Safe a week ago, finding it among the new arrivals at the public library, where I have checked out so many audio books over the last couple of years that I now sometimes find slim pickin's. I have read two or three of Berg's books before. I remember years ago enjoying Talk Before Sleep enough that I bought a copy for my best friend. That book, though dealing primarily with cancer, was a book about the strength of friendship's ties.

As I started listening this time, though, I found myself impatient with Helen, the protagonist who loses her husband to a sudden heart attack, then discovers he has done something without her knowledge with most of their savings for retirement. I'll admit: a situation like that might make me whine, but Helen is a whiner extraordinaire. A successful writer, she finds herself no longer able to write. Even worse, always dependent on her husband, she doesn't seem to want to make the effort to take care of herself, to face what life is dishing out. She suffers from the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome: If she doesn't like the idea of a phone message, she just doesn't return the call.

Helen's daughter Tessa, old enough to have been considered doomed to "spinsterhood" in Austen's day, always harps at her mother. I began to anticipate her "Mom--mom--mom!" responses to Helen's doting, her questioning, her interference.

But I kept reading. The story drew me in, and the author often surprised me. I may not identify with Helen, but I recognized her and I couldn't help liking her. She's that friend we all have--and love--who always needs a second opinion, who tries to read between lines when there's nothing there, who sometimes tries too hard, sometimes not hard enough.

Berg skillfully builds her characters in a most consistent way. Although they are capable of surprising readers, their traits and quirks resurface in a variety of ways, unifying the story. She puts Helen in situations that cause despair, confusion, and hurt and lets her respond in ways readers can believe and understand.

One of my favorite parts of the narrative is the writing class Helen is practically coerced into teaching. The classes intentionally bring together a wide range of people who write and share their work each week--from the mentally challenged to business professionals. As they read from their work, Berg deftly manages to recreate many different voices through their stories as well. I found myself touched by Helen's growing affection for the members of the group, even the ones that could have been annoying or offensive.

The class experiences leads to what I loved best in the book: around chapter 30, Helen delivers an interior monologue on the beauty of reading and writing. It fit perfectly, rather than standing out like a soapbox speech, but it could practically stand alone. I realized that her love for books and for the power of language is the force that liberates this woman, allowing her for forgive hurtful slights and to move on.

When I reached what must have been the last page or two, the CD playing began to skip. I pulled over, stopped the car, ejected the CD and cleaned it as best I could. Although the sound quality improved, the last few words were garbled. Today I plan to stop by the library to return the audiobook--and to look for the print copy so I can read the last few lines.

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