Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tapestry of Fortunes, by Elizabeth Berg

I am on vacation in Florida, escaping the grinding slog that has been this winter. I am also the general factotum for my parents, who have crossed into their eighties. I am the primary driver due to cataracts and residual weakness following chemotherapy.

I am spending far too much time looking at screens, and so I went out to Target to buy a book. This is the one I came back with.

I have read several of Berg's books, and I have liked them. I picked up The Beautiful Ruins and paged through it, remembering that it had been pretty well reviewed, but it just felt so--male. It was about men, men's problems, men's interest in women, men being manly while wanting beautiful women, and it just made me tired after sampling only a few pages. I wanted to read about women.

Thus, the Berg.

The copy on the back of the book was promising. The protagonist is a motivational speaker who can't take her own advice. She moves into an old house in my actual home town, with three other women, and they embark on their own growth journeys. All of them have lived quite a while, enough that they are reassessing their choices and trying to find peace with their pasts.

Sadly, I cannot recommend this book at all. It feels so entirely half-baked, as if Berg turned it in before really working through the final draft. The bones are the plot are in place, the set pieces are arranged, the characters and locations mapped out. But all the machinery shows, and the whole thing churns along without actually taking the time to convey the emotions it seeks to evoke.

Our Protagonist, Cece (short for Cecilia) has lost her best friend as the book opens.(*) Penny is dead before we even meet her, and the short flashbacks to their friendship feel perfunctory in the extreme. Oddly, Penny is married, and Cece is not, but the three-leggedness of the relationship is kind of glossed over. Supposedly this is her one and only friend (and the husband is kind of a BOGO), but the interactions between them are kind of generic.

(*Actually, there is a sort of prologue, where the pre-teen Cece gets her fortune told by a friend of her mother's. The fortune is kind of ambiguous, not at all compelling, and the friend disappears for the rest of the book. There is also a short chapter which is supposed to establish Cece's bona fides as a motivational speaker, but it's not actually very motivating. It's like the outline for the novel called for "Chapter One, Cece On The Job"but Berg's heart wasn't really in it at all. Perfunctory.)

"We lived next door to each other. We ate dinner and watched movies. Sometimes I didn't want to go home, but then I did. I kept their gifts to each other at my house. We had a fight once, where Penny accused me of buying too much stuff and not paying attention to my own motivational speeches. Then she died."

Generic, like I said. Oh, Penny thought her husband should remarry, and suggested Cece. They both declined. This is it--the great relationship. I'm not touched by it, because it's not dramatized, it's listed. People who are truly soulmate friends would have all of these elements on the checklist, but the checklist doesn't actually convey the nature of the relationship. There were no inside jokes, no moments of emotional connection. Supposedly the two of them wanted to travel together (conveniently, the husband didn't want to travel at all), but they never did. No guilt, no emotional repercussions at all for Cece--not even when, later in the book, she does exactly that with the roommates she has just met.

Subsequently, Cece decides it's time to sell her house, take a break from working, and change up her life. A postcard from an old flame arrives and he becomes the catalyst for change. Of course, everything works out perfectly in zero time. Cece mentions to her mother that she's thinking of selling her house. "Oh, there's a woman I know who's looking for a housemate, I'll just call her and set up an appointment for this afternoon."

Cece goes to the house, and it's perfect, the residents are all ladies of a certain age, she decides immediately that she wants to live there, they decide they want her to move in, the relator sells her house and all the extra furniture for cash at the asking price in one day.

Do you think any of the other conflicts will work themselves out as well?

Let's list them. The owner of the house, Lise, is a doctor. She is divorced, and has a prickly relationship with her adult daughter. Mostly, they don't speak to each other, so the readers don't see the reality of the relationship. Renie is a lesbian with a chip on her shoulder, and a daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 19 and hasn't seen since. Joni is a chef. Cece has this old flame. They decide to take a road trip to meet everybody from their past.

First up is Renie, who is able to Google her daughter (what???) and sends a few emails. Daughter doesn't want to meet her and is pissed at being abandoned, while also apparently having ended up in a pretty decent family. Despite being warned off by the daughter, she decides that she's going to go sit in a cafe for an hour and let the daughter decide to approach her, or not. Daughter writes a nasty note in response, but seconds later repents and they have an unseen reconciliation of sorts. Plans are made to see each other again.

Next is Lise, who is going to visit her ex-husband. He charms her, she realizes they have both mellowed, they make plans to try the relationship again. Joni, who has been fired by her jerk of a boss at the chichi restaurant where she works, decides she's going to open her own restaurant. (Her story has about zero stakes or conflict.)

Finally Cece goes to meet the first man she ever slept with, who also never married and apparently pined for her all these decades. At first, she misses him, as he is called away unexpectedly, but he flies back to see her and they realize they are The Ones for each other.

Also, Cece starts volunteering at a hospice--Penny made her promise before she died--and in the space of about a week, manages to get a dying 30 year old man to reconcile with his fiancee, serves as "best man" in their hospice room wedding, and is named the godmother of the subsequent (artificially inseminated) baby. Because of course--apparently, the bride and groom are orphans and hermits and have no one else in their lives but the hospice volunteer who works a couple hours a day for a week….

The descriptions of the rooms, decor, flowers, food and clothing all smack of glossy magazine spreads. Vintage cocktail pitchers hold hydrangeas on low coffee tables, while decorative pillows abound. Flowers seem to bloom in the gardens all at once, making it hard to pinpoint the time of year.

The whole thing comes in at a tidy 220 pages, slightly fleshed out, but far from fully executed. Kind of a disappointment. I'll be leaving this at a paperback exchange.