Monday, April 19, 2010

Open House, by Elizabeth Berg

I thought I had already blogged this book but I haven't been able to find an entry, so here goes. Another book chosen by my book group. I had read it years ago, and liked it enough that I read several other books by Berg as a result. How does it fare on re-read? Not quite so well.

Samantha starts the book devastated. Her husband has left, asking for a divorce. She is left alone with their eleven-year old son Travis, a house that is too large, and no career. The book follows the incidents of her life as she attempts to carry on after the cataclysmic event.

We learn almost nothing about the marriage, or why it fell apart, or much about David either. He appears in only a handful of short scenes, none of which show us why Sam would ever have loved him. What we do see is what happens to Sam as she attempts to put her life back together. She decides that since life is not going to be the same again, she will make the different be better. So she takes cues from Martha Stewart, showering and dressing as soon as she wakes up, using the good china in the dining room for breakfast, making French toast on a weekday morning, her make-up perfect.

Her son's reaction is perfect. "But I don't want French toast, I want cereal!" he whines, and Sam can't help arguing. "You have cereal every morning." "Because I like cereal. God, Mom!" And so Sam has to manage her son's needs as well as her own. Because nothing can be easy, can it?

She goes off on a spending spree, as a way to get back at David for leaving her. Unlike those of us who would go to Target and buy a new vacuum cleaner, she goes to Tiffany and buys china and silver for twelve. Because she's angry and hurt, and because she can't stand to have the snooty sales clerk see her be indecisive. Of course, this just leads David to cancel the joint accounts, because you can't be on the hood for a grief-crazed ex-wife who splurges at Tiffany's.

Eventually, Sam settles down a bit and looks at her situation rationally. She can't afford the mortgage on their big house, but she doesn't want to make Travis move. The only solution is housemates. She gets a couple of gems: first, the elegant and elderly Lydia, a grandmother figure who fits in and gives Sam some confidence in herself. Lydia moves out to marry her gentleman friend, and the room goes to Sam's gay hairdresser. Because every single woman needs a Sassy Gay Boyfriend, right?

There is another roommate who doesn't really make much of an impression, to the point of wondering why she is even in the book. Travis doesn't like the changes--of course he doesn't--but he's not immune to the charms of the new way of life as well. Sure, he'd rather not have strange people living in his house, and he doesn't trust the changes he's seeing in his mother. On the other hand, his request to live with David goes nowhere, as it is clear that David has no interest in raising a child anymore.

Sam also begins to re-enter the workforce, through the gentle guidance of King, an astrophysicist who prefers to take temporary jobs so he has time to think. Sam begins to find a new way of being in the world, one that is focused less on the shiny surface of a "perfect life"--as illustrated by her fixation on Martha Stewart--and focused more on opening her house and her life to other people. She has a moment of utter clarity about her own mother, who is frankly crazy, but is crazy in a way that allowed her to cope with the unexpected early death of her own husband.

In the end, David tells Sam that he made a mistake, and will be moving back in. After spending much of the book mourning her old life, Sam realizes that she can't go back. She tells David it's too late and he isn't welcome. She continues to move forward, and ends up in love with King--a man who is really a wonderful friend first, and a love interest second.

Would I recommend this book? I would, but with some caveats. Elizabeth Berg writes some beautiful and tender scenes, but the moments don't really all add up to a really good novel. She might even be described as a low toner version of Ann Tyler--who is herself a master of the closely observed and small moments that make up a life.

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