Monday, July 28, 2008

The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

Some authors are very good at describing action, or global political events; others shine when writing first person, in-depth psychological analysis, still others when writing as a kind of detached observer of the lives of others. I suppose I gravitate towards the writer of small events, ordinary lives, successful or failed relationships. Elizabeth Berg fits in this last category. Her characters are often ordinary to the point of being mundane, and one gets very little sense of the larger world or of political strife when reading her books. Instead, Berg is a writer of the heart, and especially of families and of all the joys and miseries that are to be found just below the surface of family life. Today I want to talk about one of her most recent novels, The Art of Mending, which, as the title suggests, is about the deep and long-lasting injuries that can come out of family life and the possibility of mending even the deepest of wounds.

Whether we like to believe it or not, there are some children who are not really liked by one or both of their parents, and who may be constant sources of (perhaps guilty) irritation to their siblings. Caroline, the youngest of three children in this little book, is just such a child. A beautiful child, in fact the only one of the three who rivals the striking beauty of their mother, but one who seems almost always unhappy, troubled and needy. When the three children return home because of health issues with their much loved father, Caroline, on the edge of a second divorce and launched into therapy, decides that it is finally time to reveal to her siblings the causes of her lifelong depression. Laura, the oldest of the three children, is the first to hear of some of the abuse that Caroline claims to have suffered at the hands of their mother. At first, so used to her little sister’s complaints, her unhappiness, she is suspicious of Caroline’s claims; they are, she decides, at least hyperbolic, and at worst downright fabrications. Steve, the brother and middle child who dislikes emotional excess in any form, simply scoffs at his sister. How could such events have happened with no one else noticing? And if they really happened, why did Caroline tell no one at the time?

Laura simply wants to return home to her happy family, her supportive husband, well adjusted children, and her tidy little business of making quilts. Still, she cannot quite simply write off Caroline’s stories; she begins to look carefully at old family snapshots, the grim face of young Caroline in even the happiest of family scenes. She realizes that her mother has always been somewhat cool physically towards her children, while their father has been the primary source of what might be called emotional nurturance. He has idealized their mother, nearly worshiped her, and it is always he who reaches out to touch his wife, rarely if ever the other way around. Yes, her mother is self-absorbed, certainly not a toucher, but an abuser?

I have no intention of revealing the plot of this novel other than to say that we can never really understand how deep and long-lasting the wounds of family strife can be, especially for young children so in need of love and reassurance. This is not a novel about sexual abuse, and in so many ways the events that are finally uncovered are not of the sensationalized sort we see in the movies or read about in daily papers. But whatever the actual events, even if they seem not so terrible, not so significant, the effects can be devastating.

Quite apart from Caroline’s story and the bit of mending that is done in this novel, Berg also tells us a lot about how and why some marriages succeed. While none of the characters in this book is wholly likeable, I find it interesting that it is two of the male characters who are most sympathetically portrayed. Laura’s husband, Pete, is both physically and emotionally accessible to his wife and children. Yes, he sometimes offers a bit too much advice when what is really needed is simply a listening and sympathetic ear, but the advice is usually good. And her father, while he may at times allow his adoration for his wife to occlude his vision concerning her treatment of the children, especially Caroline, is nonetheless a good partner, a warm and attentive father, and a simply good man.

I suppose one thing that troubles me about all of Berg’s novels is how insular her characters are. We hear nothing of the larger world; everyone is working, everyone has enough to eat, a home to live in, a car to drive. She does not pretend to be a political writer, but there are ways of writing novels about family life that reflect the larger world. Carol Shields and Alice Munro certainly manage to place their families in the context of a troubled and frightening world.

Indeed, in an afterward conversation with the author, Berg refers specifically to Alice Munro and tries to say just why she finds Munro to be such a fine writer.
I’m not even sure I can articulate this, but I’ll try. There is such unadorned confidence in her writing. She knows that what she’s talking about is interesting. It just is. It’s not an epic trip around the world. It’s not political, except in the domestic sense. But there is such a keen understanding of psychology in her stories and such sympathy and empathy. She is one of the few writers who get me right away and don’t let me go. There is a precision of language. There is a beauty, a great, great beauty in the language, but mostly I think it’s just that she understands people—their foibles, their humor, their sinfulness, their longing, their inabilities and their great abilities. She’s like a little god. She’s a literary aphrodisiac.
While I would never compare Elizabeth Berg to Alice Munro, I think what she says about Munro is true of Berg as well. Munro writes almost only short stories, Berg writes what I would call little novels. They are not great novels nor do they have grand themes, and yet there is a beauty to her writing and depth to her insights. I often save Berg novels that I pick up for one of those times when I’m having trouble getting into novels, fearing that novel-reading may finally have lost its grip on me, because, as she says of Munro, “she gets me right away and won’t let go.” And while I would not call her a little god among writers, I might put her in the highest rank of the angels.

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