Tag Archives: Elizabeth Berg

Upside Down

The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C, Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry Grant; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their toddler twins.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.  Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who is home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is chick lit (popular fiction) disguised in the trappings of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly has died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her  pregnant, married daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in novels such as this one.   After another set of implausible events, Annabelle has moved to the city to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a status she has not earned.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is occasionally plodding by comparison and the time shifts are distracting.   There also may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff. 

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Stuff That Never Happened was released on August 3, 2010.

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Homeward Bound

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg

“So many people who go to reunions think that doing so can somehow change what happened to them.   That the person you’ve become might erase the person you were then.   But of course that doesn’t happen.   …It’s not that you can’t go home again; it’s that you never can leave.”

Elizabeth Berg, author of Home Safe and 17 other novels, has offered a perfect argument for skipping one’s next high school (and maybe college) reunion.   In The Last Time, Berg shows us that people never act the way you want them to, even on the most important of occasions.   And even sadder, we don’t act the way we want or intend to, especially when meeting representatives from our dimly-lit but well-remembered past.

For one thing, everybody tries too hard at these events.   They try to be happier, smarter, more charming or simply more relaxed within their own skins than they were decades earlier.   They rarely succeed.   One of the men in this story comes to understand that, “All of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.   Here they all are, all these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

One of the women isn’t quite sure how to react as she observes the goings on:  “It comes to her that all of the people in this room are dear to her.   As if they all just survived a plane crash or something.   All the drunks and the show-offs and the nice kids and the mean ones.   All the people she used to know and all the ones she never knew at all.   And herself, too.   She includes herself and her stingy little soul.”

Eventually, we get to see in Berg’s story that people – some people – get out of these events what they must get out of them.   They learn to either completely let go of the past or to simply grip it tighter.   What other choices are there?

“If only people were given the opportunity to behave differently at certain times of their lives!”

But this is more than a Peggy Sue Got Married story.   It is a story about men and women who get a second chance with their original crowd – a chance at reconnecting and either succeeding or failing in life.   The rich graduates worry that they didn’t spend enough time with their kids while they were growing up.   The poor graduates worry that they have no impressive titles or stories of times when they were important.   But this is not really their story…

It is primarily the story of Candy Sullivan, the once-and-still beautiful and popular girl at Whitley High School.   She has been diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer.   Candy has little time to waste but decides to attend the reunion to enjoy herself while she can.   She leaves her husband at home and flies off to the reunion, where people notice her vacant eyes.   They’re vacant because she’s pondering the question, “Is death an end or a beginning?”

Candy is who we are – or at least we identify with her because she acts like we think we would in her place.   Frightened yet emboldened, imprisoned in a disease state, facing death and yet somehow set free.   Scared and calm, ready for what’s to come.

“This diagnosis has been a kind of gift.   It’s making me look at things and see them.”

You will want to keep reading The Last Time I Saw You to find out what happens to Candy and her all-too-human classmates.   Author Berg surprises us by also making the case that you simply cannot afford to miss your next reunion.

Well done, Ms. Berg.   Life painted large and small all at once.

An advance review copy was received from Random House.   The Last Time I Saw You will be released on Tuesday, April 6, 2010.

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