Berg’s Once Upon a Time

I’m an Elizabeth Berg fan.  I was a fan long before she became my neighbor here in Oak Park, particularly loving her 1997 novel, Joy School.  Oh, Joy School was a joy to read, because of the sweet sadness of her main character, Katie Nash, whose mother is dead and whose father is not very nice and whose stepmother tries but can’t really make it as a mom, and who falls in love at the tender age of 13 with a 23-year-old married gas station attendant.  And her crush, which could have been cruel, is instead a little clueless but ultimately caring.  There are three books in total which feature Katie:  Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form.  They are all well worth reading and I recently revisited Durable Goods in audiobook form.

I picked up Once Upon a Time, There was You at the Book Table, my local independent bookstore.  As always with Berg, the book is beautifully written and in many ways, a pleasure to read.  It features interesting characters:  Long-divorced Irene and John, their 18-year-old daughter Sadie, her boyfriend Ron, and several other smaller characters, including a younger man with a thing for older women, especially Irene.

I laughed out loud in the scene where Irene talks her friend Valerie into taking off her clothes in a kind of 50-ish ladies version of “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”   That it happened in Irene’s kitchen – and that Sadie, of course, walks in on the duo – made it even funnier.

Other events in the book are not as funny.  The key plot device in the book is that Sadie, waiting for her perennially late boyfriend, gets into a car with a good-looking, friendly stranger, and ends up being menaced with a box cutter and locked in a shed.  The scary guy leaves her there, promising to return with a friend that Sadie is expected to be “very nice” to.

The scene where Sadie gets in the car is well-written, well-paced, and genuinely scary.   But Berg pulls her punches, figuring (I imagine) that her readership wouldn’t put up with rape, violence or murder – kidnapping and threats are scary enough.  The near-tragedy works fine to prod the various characters into action:  Irene and John flirt tentatively with revisiting their long-gone romance before John makes a mental commitment to his new love; Sadie marries her boyfriend Ron, who has his own reasons for making this commitment, and Irene steps up in her work life but keeps mostly intact her push-pull relationship with the opposite sex.

And maybe Berg is right to pull back.  I don’t know how much she thought about where to draw the line.  But I found the crime aspect of the story implausible -violently scary abduction, subsequent imprisonment, vague threats and abandonment, followed by miraculous rescue – and the obsessive focus on Sadie’s subsequent marriage irritating.

I suspect that Berg just couldn’t bring herself to rape Sadie, or beat her, or cut her with that box cutter, even though it would both be more credible and deepen the emotional impact of the story.   But what a story that would be, to have Irene, with her slightly saggy, petechiae-spotted skin, bantering caterer boss, long-time best friend, unresolved distrust of men (even the lovely younger guy!) yanked from her own small world of worries into one where bad stuff really does happen.  Where a daughter’s crisis isn’t a near-miss, but a tragedy, and the ensuing action isn’t fodder for your pre-existing obsessions about marriage but instead a real change in your world – a 180 degree change.

Berg’s strength isn’t plots, it’s people.  Her prose is lyrical and the small moments in the book can be fresh and very lovely.  She could have stayed in her sweet spot by using a different plot device to bring John and Irene together in Once Upon a Time, There Was You, skipping the kidnapping entirely.  Or she could have gone with the darker side and made a different book, that built on her strengths while deepening the psychological insights and emotional impact.  I would have really liked to read that book.

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