The first three sentences of "Open House," Elizabeth Berg's eighth novel, are vintage Berg: domestic, conversational, and quietly charged with emotion:
"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 you are staring at nothing: he is gone before he is gone."
"Open House" describes what happens after Samantha's husband leaves her and their 11-year-old son, Travis. She has to rent rooms in her house in order to make ends meet. And she has to learn how to make her own happiness by coming to terms with the fact that she wasn't happy in her marriage, no matter how hard she tried.
Berg, who lives in Massachusetts, brings to her fiction much of her own personal experiences. She is a former critical-care nurse. She is the mother of two daughters. She has been described by an interviewer as a tall, strikingly attractive woman with long chestnut hair.
Berg is the ultimate writer of what are sometimes called "chick books." Women love her, they identify with her and her characters, and they appreciate her optimism.
"I wanted to write about my experiences in a fictional way, to create characters and events that, although imagined, would testify to the emotional truth of what happened," she wrote.
And the Reporter Book Club has selected "Open House" as its selection for January.
She has been called a "life-affirming sentimentalist" and that she is. "I'm a rank sentimentalist and I make no apologies at all for it," she said.
But her life and writing is leavened, too, with sobering realities. She suffers from a chronic illness and was divorced after 23 years of marriage.
Berg battles incurable mycosis fungoides, a chronic T-cell lymphoma that affects the skin, appearing as a rash.
She was born in 1948 in St. Paul, Minn. Her father was a career Army officer, so Berg spent much of her childhood moving from town to town with her family. She earned a nursing degree from St. Mary's Junior College in Minneapolis. She married Howard Berg in 1974 and they settled in a Boston suburb.
She began her writing career by entering an essay contest in Parents magazine in about 1985. She won the contest, earned $500, and began writing non-fiction magazine articles.
When she was diagnosed with MF and was told, mistakenly, that she had only five years to live, she went home and made berry pies.
"They were the best pies I ever made," she told an interviewer from the trade journal Publishers Weekly. "I have always appreciated the small, quiet things in life, and what I learned right away is how important to me they are, and how important they will always be."
"Durable Goods" (1993) was her first novel, followed by "Talk Before Sleep," "Range of Motion," "Joy School," "The Pull of the Moon," "What We Keep," "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," and "Open House."
All of her novels are narrated by different women, yet the voice, Berg agrees, is always her own.
"I write about people that I wish I were like, but it's always me talking," she says. "It's always the same motivation, whatever theme it takes. For me, there will always be life-affirming stuff. "
Reviewers have praised Berg for writing about emotionally charged subjects without falling into mawkishness. Critics have said she doesn't always avoid that trap.
And there is a sameness to her middle-class novels that her fans love and her critics endure.
Take "Open House," for instance. Samantha's pain is vividly portrayed. But within weeks of being alone, a new man appears in her life. And her husband wants to reconcile.
The book ends with ever-hopeful Samantha involved in a brand-new love affair. Has she really learned to make her own happiness? Or did Berg save the day by creating a happy ending?
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