Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Home Safe


Elizabeth Berg is a favorite writer of so many women, but for some reason I've been late to join the appreciation society.  I've read a few of her books -- and liked them; even liked them a lot -- but it wasn't until Home Safe that I experienced  the sort of fervor which made me want to run straight over to the library and check out everything on the shelves.  (I actually did that yesterday; and what I couldn't find, I ordered off of Amazon.)

I think that Berg should probably be declared the literary patron saint of middle-aged woman.  This begs the question:  Can a person use the term middle-aged without sounding the teensiest bit derogatory?  The other week I referred to one of my friends as middle-aged, and she took offense -- even though she is 48.  I myself am not offended by the description, but perhaps that is because, as my teenaged daughter is fond of telling me, I like "being an old person."   I like baking, and gardening, and talking about the weather, and listening to classical music.  I am middle-aged:  sandwiched between my mother's generation and my daughters'.  Most of us are middle-aged, really; youth is actually a short stretch, and so is old age that will admit itself as such.   Middle-age is fertile ground, full of changes and transitions and growth -- no matter how stodgy and dowdy the term might sound. 

The protagonist of Home Safe is a writer named Helen whose life has just become seriously unstuck, just as she thought she would be entering a serene state of semi-retirement.  She is also suffering from writer's block, just to add insult to injury.  Helen is losing the biggest safety nets of her life -- husband, father, career, identity as a mother -- and she is forced to create a new scaffolding for herself.   At the age of 59 she has to grow up, or "step up" as her best friend Midge describes it. 

Berg begins this novel with an interesting premise: What if you were given your retirement fantasy?  Sometimes, especially when his work isn't going well, my husband likes to speculate about his retirement.  I, too, enjoy playing that game of What Shall We Do?  Do we want a wide life, or a deep one?  Do we want to know many places casually, or one place profoundly?  Dream house in the country, or an apartment in the city?  Do we want to put down roots, or travel light?  Of course, fantasies don't have to worry about trade-offs or compromises.  And sometimes we really don't get to choose -- at least not in the way that we expect to.  After all, how many aphorisms are there that express the foolishness of making plans?

Man plans, God laughs.
  
One of Berg's gifts is that she doesn't gloss over the difficulties or losses of life, but there is still a sense of optimism and hopefulness.  Her novels are easy to read, but never superficial or dumb.  I share many of Helen's foibles, and perhaps that is why I so identified with her.  Although I wouldn't have made the same choices, perhaps, I always felt like the novel played out in a way that was emotionally honest and true. 

Berg's writing is like slipping into a warm, scented bath.  Frankly, a middle-aged body can appreciate that.


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@Barrie Summy

32 comments:

willow said...

I've not read any of Berg's works. She sounds delightful. Most of us here in the blog world are middle aged, aren't we? I would venture to say that the term "elderly" is being pushed farther and farther out there!

David Cranmer said...

I enjoy stories where writers are the protagonists and now that I'm middle-aged, well, it sounds tops.

(Yes, even old sounds better then m. aged.)

Beth said...

The Pull of the Moon – published in 1996 - was the first Elizabeth Berg novel I ever read. Loved it and highly recommend it. I envy you just beginning the Elizabeth Berg journey!
I enjoyed Home Safe as well.

Elizabeth said...

I must give E. Berg another shot after no quite liking one ages ago --I think it was at an airport which is a reading venue only suited to trash.
Loved your spring photo -- it is half raining half snowing here.(sigh)
Middle age, old age. I have decided that I am a VERY YOUNG old person.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Bee

I have read Berg's books in the past and will read "Home Safe"-- seems to be a good book.

Enjoyed the review and I hope to see more reviews on Elizabeth Berg.

Best
Tracy :)

slommler said...

I haven't read any of Berg's books. Looks like my TBR list is now growing even larger! Oh dear!!!
Hugs
SueAnn

The Bug said...

My current audio book is almost over (can't wait to find out whodunnit!) so I'll add this one to my waiting list to download later this week. If I like her then there are a LOT of books to choose from at my library. Love to find new authors to devour. Woot!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, now you've made me want to run to the library! I've not read her before, though several of my friends are fans. I shall take your recommendation and jump in between the covers!

I think it's the word, "middle", in the term middle aged that offends. No woman wants to call attention to that particular part of her anatomy after the age of 35. Let's see.... why don't we call ourselves 'tween-aged!

To be honest, when I turned forty I thought..."now, this feels right". Like you, my favourite occupations are decidedly older ones. Baking, reading, knitting, gardening...yikes... I sound like Miss Marple, don't I!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have always enjoyed Berg's books. They are never too long and never too didactic. Always heart-felt.

marja-leena said...

Wonderful review to an author unknown to me. This book appeals, have added her to my library list which is far too long for this lifetime! I often feel like I'm 'in between' ages, middle-age is too long a space to be lumped into!

ArtSparker said...

Keep up with the yoga too, though. I always think of Monty Python's comfy chair...ultimately, it's not the central need our bodies have until we're really ready to go. I was proabalbly a bit snippy in my comment yesterday - I think I was generalizing the weather/seasons trope which I have heard many times to the idea that somehow people in California don't struggle or suffer - which bears a personal investment.

Pam said...

Thank you for introducing me to Elizabth Berg Bee. I seem to be a bit late with this one, and am curious now. Sounds good. I too, remember being offended in my late 40's at being called middle-aged. I equated it with greying hair and a spreading waistline. A decade on, and I'm happy to have both, and quite comfortable with myself and my more sedentary lifestyle.

Bee said...

Maybe you are right about the word "middle," Pamela! Why do we detest the description so much?

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Lovely review--I particularly liked the last lines. :) I've never read Elizabeth Berg--I'll have to look out for her books. Thanks for the review!

Christina said...

Berg's work is just amazing to me. I red her first one years ago and kept going and going. Bliss!
xo

Meri said...

I've liked several of her books but haven't read her for a while. I know a thing or two about losing the shape of my carefully constructed life and having to build a new one from the ground up. I wonder if it would be painful, liberating, or old hat to read of Helen's journey?

Anne said...

Isn't it funny how such matter-of-fact descriptive terms can be so loaded? At one point earlier today, speaking with my mom, I referred to my dad as "middle-aged" and was suddenly very conscious of perhaps having given offense. Perhaps referring to being "in one's prime" would feel better?

Thanks for the book recommendation. I'm not familiar with Berg's books, but I hope to be soon.

Lucy said...

And yet I find the French 'd'un certain age' slightly irritatingly coy and evasive, we are always of a certain age surely? The point is the parameters keep changing. I find ones forties are difficult. If I call myself middle aged people often seem to feel obliged to protest, but why?

Anyway, the book sounds good. And your snowdrops nearly made me weep. We don't really get them much here. I never thought I'd be so pleased to see a meagre few celandine and speedwell. I shall hie me and look for daffodils...

Barrie said...

Oh, Bee, you do write the best reviews! Personally, I've never met an Elizabeth Berg book I didn't love. I haven't read Home Safe yet. I'm thrilled it's in my future, waiting.

julochka said...

i love these thoughts on middle age. tho' i find i bristle more at the notion than you, it is coming along nicely and that feeling fades as i grow more accepting. because frankly, i wouldn't want to go back and i'm happy with where i am. middle age doesn't have to mean old or stodgy. we can be part of redefining it. possibly while sipping a cocktail in the garden. :-)

Sarah @ Natural History (was Passementerie) said...

I haven't read anything by her, but I wonder if you have read the Diary of a Provincial Lady? I adored middle-brow women's literature from the first half of the last century (cue: Persephone Books!) and find that the more domesticated the setting and the older the protagonist, the more charming the novel (when written with a light enough hand, of course).

Rose said...

I haven't read anything by Berg, but you have definitely drawn me in here. An excellent review! I agree with your musings about being middle-aged, and finding a literary patron saint for us has me intrigued.

Sarah Laurence said...

It was so nice to see your flowers on this post and the one below since it is snowing outside my window. I started to read one Berg novel but never finished it. Perhaps I picked the wrong one. Your review makes me want to check out Home Safe. I can’t say I think of retirement, probably because I’m still trying to launch my writing career . . . in middle age.

Teresa O said...

I read Berg for the first time a few months ago, A Year of Pleasures, and enjoyed it immensely. I'm going to head to Amazon and check out Home Safe.

Kathy said...

This sounds fabulous and I must put this on my list. I was shocked the first time I was called "middle-aged" by a co-worker, although I thought I was middle-aged at 35, only because the media at the time said I was. But you make a good point about youth being the brief period and most of life is lived in the middle-age.

Wind Spirit said...

Bee, you are amazing! Your Mother and I were just sort of talking about this too...especially the not always having control over what you end up doing in retirement. Will find some Berg too.
Love the spring flowers. Our daffodils are just in bud. Snow again this week slowed them down a bit.

Bee said...

Thanks, everyone, for your generous comments. Barrie, it's always a pleasure!

Sarah, your description of "middle-brow" literature is exactly right . . . and like middle-age, there is something un-cool about this category of writing, neither high nor low . . . and yet I want to say, "So what? That's me. That's where I am. And I'm just going to admit to it and embrace it." I haven't read that particular Persephone, although I've had my eye on it a time or two.

Lucy, I agree about the coyness. Also, there is something so pointlessly and embarrassingly vague about that expression . . . as if one's age is a bit shaming.

Wind Spirit, I'm so pleased to see your comment. I think that there are at least 3 stages to middle-age . . . and maybe more!

Wind Spirit said...

My Dad used to say there were 3 stages to retirement too: Go go, Slow go, and No go.

Cait O'Connor said...

I have read only one or two of Berg's novels. Home Safe sounds like a must-read, thanks so much for introducing it to me.

Kristen In London said...

I do not expect to live to age 90, but I agree that 45 feels like "the middle" because I'm in between my mother and my daughter. Unscientific, but that's my role: looking out for both generations and feeling in between, in the middle.

The only Berg I have read is "Talk Before Sleep" and it broke my heart, chronicling the death of a best girlfriend from the point of view of the best friend. Simply heartbreaking. Do you like Carol Shields? Also very sad, but beautifully written family dramas.

Lisa said...

It's been a long time since I read one of Berg's novels. I'm going to change that. Thank you.

Like you, I kind of relish the way we are allowed to be as we swim through the long middle.

Relyn said...

I have loved Elizabeth Berg for years, but I find that I don't love her newer books nearly as much as her older ones. To me her best is Pull of the Moon. Maybe it's Talk Before Sleep or Range of Motion. Hmmm.... one of those three anyway. Have you found her blog yet? It's really wonderful. I'll look for the link to give you later.

As to the rest of your post: I hadn't really thought about it, but I do hate the term middle aged. I am fast approaching middle age (or am already here by your definition)and have been struggling with it just a bit. Thank you for your thoughts on this. You are exactly right. Life is mostly the time in the middle. And that can be quite lovely.

I really loved this: ost of us are middle-aged, really; youth is actually a short stretch, and so is old age that will admit itself as such. Middle-age is fertile ground, full of changes and transitions and growth -- no matter how stodgy and dowdy the term might sound. I think I shall live by it.