Jane TompkinsBy Jane Tompkins

The fiction of Elizabeth Berg is good to read—and good for you, too. Her books will feed your spirit and distract you from your problems effectively for as long as you keep turning the pages. They are great company—when reading them you feel you’re not stumbling along all by yourself in this world, because in her you have a fellow stumbler, fellow survivor in adversity. She speaks to her readers in a manner that breaks through defenses, induces trust, and conveys a feeling that, despite everything, life is basically good, and sometimes marvelous.

How does she do this? By enjoying so much what she does. I always feel while reading her work that she gets a huge kick out of writing it. If so, she must be happy, because, in addition to hundreds of magazine articles, Elizabeth Berg has published at least nineteen novels, two collections of short stories, and two non-fiction books. She’s won several awards and had one of her books chosen for Oprah’s Book Club (Open House). I’ve read two and half novels, one short story collection, and part of her book on writing. Not enough to be an expert but enough to file an interim report.Picture4

I picked up Never Change (2001) in the Andes library and couldn’t put it down. (The library has several of her books.) Then I read her short story collection The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (a good way to get acquainted with her work and at times a laff riot). Next I read Open House (2000), and am partway through Once Upon a Time, There Was You (2008). Never Change concerns a fifty-one-year-old visiting nurse, not pretty, never married, who’s assigned as a patient, a man she carried a torch for when they were both in high school. He has terminal brain cancer.

Her challenge: to make herself vulnerable by allowing herself to treat the man she never dated but has never forgotten, not as a patient, but as a human being she loves with her whole heart.

Berg, it turns out, was an RN who worked part-time while she raised her children, and she writes well about things like IVs and how people react to a cancer diagnosis. Her characterizations of the patients her heroine visits are so engaging and believable, I wanted to hang out with these people after the novel was over.

The nursing experience gave Berg insight into the process of dying; her life as a mother gave her insight into human behavior and family love. She’s been around the block a few times and knows what’s what when it comes to sex and relations between men and women, parents and children. She feels like a reliable guide. But she’s more than that. Now and then her understanding and insight will dazzle you. The way the nurse protagonist in Never Change talks to her patient as she assists his suicide made me realize that Berg is wise and her relation to life is deep.

She has flashes of comic genius as well. Her observations of how we deal with food—the craving, the self-denial, the self-indulgence, the bingeing, the guilt—hit the bull’s eye. After a rendezvous with gluttony at a fast food restaurant–bacon cheeseburger, fries, ketchup, extra salt, and a chocolate malted with whipped cream–the main character in The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted starts in on the agonies of a dieting program that gave her a set number of “points” for each meal:

Let’s see, what the hell can I have for so little, oh, I know, broth and a salad with very little dressing. And the broth is good! Yes! So chickeny!Picture3 That’s what we tell ourselves, we who cannot eat air without gaining, we who eat the asparagus longing for the potatoes au gratin, for the fettuccine Alfredo, for the pecan pie.

 Berg gets inside our heads, knows our thoughts better than we do, teaches us to laugh at ourselves, and to forgive.

Open House is the story of a woman, divorced by her husband, adrift, needing money, who rents out rooms to strangers and falls in love with a handyman with an astrophysics degree. It’s good (especially the sex at the end), but Once Upon a Time, There Was You—also about divorce–is better, told from the perspectives of a husband, a wife, and their college-age daughter, characters Berg inhabits so completely that you feel their yearning for one another, their suppressed longing, their suppressed love.

Her book on writing, Escape into the Open: The Art of Writing True (1999), is passionate and practical. This successful writer wants to help other people write and knows how to do it. “Listen to me. You need to be a home for yourself and your work. You need to be the safe place to present things to be admired and loved.  . . . Know that it’s necessary that you love your work, and let yourself do that.”  I’ll bet no book on writing ever said that before, and I’ve read quite a few.

One more thing: in Berg’s books (the ones I’ve read) the narrators are all women who experience the world as women do; her subject matter is chiefly male-female, parent-child relations. Does this make her a “women’s novelist’’? Maybe. But only if the novels of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer are strictly for men. Our culture has taught us to see men’s experience as the norm, and universal—important by definition, and women’s experience as particular, “other,” and relatively unimportant. Reading Elizabeth Berg has made me see that nothing could be further from the truth. Her latest book is The Dream Lover (2015). I’ll be reading it.~

Jane would like to hear from her readers: