Monday, February 28, 2000

Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg

I want to talk to you this morning about a wonderful little book by Elizabeth Berg entitled, Talk Before Sleep. I think that Berg and another woman novelist, Joanna Trollope, are the current masters of the short novel. This one is perfect for an end of winter weekend read, and the impact of the novel will be far greater if you can read it in a sitting or two.

This is a novel about a woman who is dying of cancer and about the incredible group of women who gather around her to care for her and to celebrate their unity, their family. Of course, it is not a happy novel, but it is incredibly uplifting and optimistic. We are, after all, all of us situated towards death; this is, indeed, one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human. How we deal with our deaths and the deaths of our loved ones, and how our loved ones are able to deal with our deaths, these are the crucial issues. This group of women friends, this family, is just the sort that all of us would love to have, and I at least, would like to think that I could conduct myself with the attention and compassion towards my loved ones that these women display to each other. Though I have to admit straight out that I don’t think I could do it. Either because of weakness or self absorption or both, I think I could not be present in the ways that these women are for one another.

This is not a male bashing book, but it is very much a book about relationships between women and about suspicions that I think many (even most?) women have about the ability of men to remain present and open in situations that necessarily involve a lot of pain.

Ruth, the women who is dying of cancer, often represents the most extremely skeptical view of male-female relationships (though she, like the other women, also talks openly and honestly about her need of men, her love of men, even her mistakes in having separated from men). In one of her earliest conversations with Ann, the narrator and one of three or four main characters, the following exchange occurs. Ann has told her husband that she is going off with Ruth, first to the fabric store, but then elsewhere. His response, though good natured, is that she should stay gone a long time. Ann remarks to Ruth that he was both kidding and not, “... assuming a man’s usual position of benign inscrutability.” Ann goes on to say that they have been having minor tiffs almost every weekend because she wants to go places, and he wants to stay home and relax. A common enough domestic problem, insists Ann, but also troubling and seeming symptomatic of something deeper, something more indelible—that it seemed almost as if they did not like one another on some fundamental level. Ruth’s reply is slightly flippant, but serious nonetheless:
“It’s not just husbands and wives,” she said. “Men just can’t like women. Even if they wanted to like us—which they don’t—they’re too jealous. They want to be like us, and they can’t be. And they know they need us more than we need them, and it drives them crazy. Much of this, of course, is subconscious.” Then, looking at me, “It’s true!”
I quote this exchange not because it is typical of the book. The hyperbole is intentional, and yet it does express what amounts more to a fear the women share than a conviction. Indeed, this same women, Ruth, when she later gets the chance to reunite with a childhood sweetheart, grasps at the chance. And even when she sees how it troubles her faithful women caregivers, how her very intimacy with this man seems to distance her from her true family, she persists. “I can’t help it,” she exclaims, “I like men to like me.” Indeed, she complains with some bitterness to Ann that the admiration (even envy) she has gotten from all of the women is this circle of friends for having left her financially secure home, her dependable and faithful husband, has sometimes been a burden. That she is tired of being the model of the independent woman, of acting out the fantasy that all of the women in the group have.

Ann, like the other women, admires her beautiful and independent friend Ruth, and understands that Ruth is the catalyst for all sorts of fundamental existential questions. Reflecting on a particularly wonderful and troubling meeting with Ruth in which the two women flirt with sexual longing that lies mostly unacknowledged between them:
“I saw that every person is a multifaceted and complex being, worthy of respectful exploration and discovery; that this longing we can’t name and try to cure with relationships might only be us, wanting to know all of our own selves. I felt like I was starting to learn, and I sort of whooped a little in happiness ...”
From what I have said so far, you may take this to be a somber and serious and sad book. In fact, in spite of dealing with dying and inevitable death, it is a humorous and even playful book most of the time. The scenes of the women friends gathered together as they care for their friend are funny and insightful, even frolicking. They recall for each other first dates and early, fumbling gropings—exchange stories about men’s almost unbelievable fascination with breasts. They make food for each other, eat piles of take-out, drink and laugh and cry.

I don’t want to overburden this fine little book with commentary. Let me end with one more quote that I think gets to at least one of the major themes. Ann and Ruth are about to go out looking at cemeteries, sharing even this final bit of preparation for Ruth’s immanent death. Ann is wondering how Ruth’s mother, already dead, would handle this scene, watching her daughter with her best friend, choosing a burial sight. Ann reflects:
“I know if Ruth’s mother were alive, she would handle this, draw from the reservoir of sacred strength that women are born with. She would wear clothes whose very smell comforted Ruth, she would put on an apron and make her soup and butter her toast and help her to walk to the bathroom when she needed it; and when things turned the worst, she would not leave. Women do not leave situations like this: we push up our sleeves, lean in closer, and say, ‘What do you need? Tell me what you need and by God I will do it.’ I believe that the souls of women flatten and anchor themselves in times of adversity, lay in for the stay. I’ve heard that when elephants are attacked they often run, not away, but toward each other. Perhaps it is because they are a matriarchal society.”
This is a wonderful novel about the friendship and camaraderie of women. You will see women from your own lives as you read it.

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