Saturday, March 19, 2011

212 (2011 #17). The Art of Mending

by Elizabeth Berg

I read this book for an online book discussion - I'm not sure if I would have selected it to read otherwise.  It's kind of an odd book; it did leave me feeling wanting.

Laura, the narrator, heads to the annual reunion of her family of origin with her husband and kids.  While there, her younger sister Caroline wants to talk with her and their brother Steve about abuse "of a very specific kind" (not sexual) that she remembers experiencing growing up.   More family drama ensues. As Laura remembers things about their childhood, it becomes clear that Caroline was mistreated by their mother, but what's not clear is why (and the ultimate explanation is not very plausible, in my opinion).

I had a tough time with this book. I found it rather depressing and a little boring. I couldn't develop much sympathy or empathy for any of the characters. Even the author seems to feel that way.  In an interview at the end of my paperback edition, she acknowledges various weaknesses in the book and says,

One of the problems with this book is that because the abuse didn't happen to me, I had to circle around and imagine what someone who had endured that would feel like.  If you look at the reader reviews on, a lot of people had a problem with this book.  I think this book got a short shrift.  I don't think it's my best book by any means, but I think there's more there than some people want to or were able to see....

If you're going to create an unsympathetic narrator, you're going to get into trouble.  I guess it was important for me to write this story, having created other characters that people really did like.  I don't know why this character emerged the way that she did.  The narrator is hard to like - but then, everybody in the novel is.  I guess, in the end, it represents reality.  One of the things that make this novel so complicated is that none of the characters are innocent.  To make them unlikeable drives home that point.  Or maybe since I've not experienced abuse, there was a necessary distance between me and the characters that made them seem unsympathetic....But whether you like the characters or not, I believe the novel makes you think about a lot of things.

Indeed, in our discussion, some in the group could identify with the dysfunction in Laura's family, and a couple were interested in a sequel.

In the interview, Berg goes on the say that this book, her thirteenth novel, was not easy for her to write, and when asked about the fourteenth, she says, "There is some sort of shift occurring in me creatively, and I don't know what it is yet.  I have a contract to fulfill, and I think I will never do that again because there is too much of the good-girl, Catholic fourth-grader in me.  I need my playfulness back."  Sounds like Ms. Berg may be a victim of her own success.

I did enjoy Berg's expressive writing, especially Laura's descriptions of quilting (she's a professional) and of the "art of mending" (page 14):

As for mending, I think it's good to take the time to fix something rather than throw it away. It's an antidote to wastefulness and to the need for immediate gratification. You get to see a whole process through, beginning to end, nothing abstract about it. You'll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there's an art to mending: If you're careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing, because it is testimony to its worth.

That of course also expresses the theme of the book - family relationships are worth repairing.  The back of the book had a preview to Berg's A Year of Pleasures, which I found much more interesting than this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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