Monday, February 7, 2011

Open House by Elizabeth Berg

This is just a warning. It might look like I'm reading the Oprah's Book Club collection this year. Okay, I might actually be reading the Oprah's Book Club collection this year, but it's not deliberate, really. Okay, well, it's kind of deliberate in the sense that I'm reading the books on purpose, but not purposeful that they all seem to be part of Oprah's book club. You see, my mother and I share our books, so when I read a book from my shelves it doesn't always leave the house. Sometimes it hangs out for eons just in case she might read it. The converse is also true. I am a notorious offender when it comes to never reading the books she's read, regardless of their merit, and so the stacks just get larger and larger, whereas if I read what she's already read, maybe we can make some space. So, one of my many reading goals this year is to read some of those books. As it so happens, mom went through a lengthy Oprah's Book Club phase, which means, I might be looking at a lot of such titles. Open House by Elizabeth Berg is the first of these, and I'm happy to report that neither Berg nor Oprah disappoints with this one.

You know before you know, of course. You are bending over the dryer, pulling out the still-warm sheets, and the knowledge walks up your backbone. You stare at the man you love and know you are staring at nothing: he is gone before he is gone.

Sam Morrow's husband David has left her and their 11-year-old son, Travis, and she has come unmoored. She doesn't know what to do or who to turn to and there's no one that seems terribly fit to give her any of the help she needs. That, and she can't seem to stop desperately wanting David to come back despite her mother's and her best friend's assurances that she's better off without him. She goes through a woman's stages of grief alternately crying and shopping and determining to become a new and better person. It's not long until she realizes that she'll need a roommate or two not to mention a job to be able to keep living in the house she once shared with her husband.

The following weeks find Sam opening up her house and sometimes her heart to a variety of new people. There's Lydia, a friend's elderly mother who hasn't given up on love. There's King, a man who has traded in career and prestige to work odd jobs and learn to enjoy life. There's Lavender Blue who hates her real name and the world and thinks life has nothing good in store for her. There's Edward, the gay hairdresser, who brings hair styling to the table as a fringe benefit of having him as a tenant. It's this motley collection of people that will teach Sam that, even if one chapter of her life has come to an end, her life and love are far from over.

I really enjoyed Open House and was taken by surprise by Berg's writing which is surprisingly powerful in its own understated way. Berg's story helped me to understand and relate to a life utterly unlike mine, and she drew my sympathies to a narrator whose situation, while not atypical, is foreign to my own experience. Despite our differences, I related to Sam as she struggled to find her footing in a world where the familiar has been stripped away. The wrenching pain of the end of a marriage is vividly rendered, and Sam's slow healing is cathartic for both her and the reader.

Back in the kitchen, I gulp down another cup of coffee. Then I mix eggs and milk in a blue-and-yellow bowl that tiny shop in Paris, our weeklong vacation there, I stood at the window one morning after I'd gotten up and he came up behind me and put his arms around my middle, his lips to the back of my neck, add a touch of vanilla, a sprinkle of sugar. I put a frying pan on the stove put his lips to the back of my neck and we went back to bed, lay out two slices of bread on the cutting board. These hands on the ends of my wrists remove the crusts. I'm not sure why. Oh, I know why. Because they're hard.

Now, if you're anything like me, you've read this story or maybe watched it on TV half a dozen times. Girl gets married young, girl gives up self for husband and family. Then the husband leaves, and the woman has to pick up the pieces and rediscover herself at the same time. You've read it, but you haven't read it done this well. Berg has taken an old story and with a convincing narrator and a keen eye for emotional nuance has succeeded in making it fresh again.


  1. I read this a while back, and thought it was good as well. I may do a re-read because I am reminded by your review how much I liked it! Thanks!

  2. I love Berg's writing, but don't think I've read this book. I got to meet her last year and she was delightful.

  3. I read this book ages ago and really only remember that I liked it. The quotes you included in your review make me want to re-read it.