Thursday, April 21, 2011

216 (2011 #21). The Year of Pleasures

by Elizabeth Berg

I've had a "complementary copy" (without the cover pictured) of this book sitting around for some time, and decided to read it after completing Berg's The Art of Mending for an online book discussion.  My copy of the latter had a preview of The Year of Pleasures, which sounded much more interesting than The Art of Mending was.

After children's book author Betta Nolan's beloved husband John dies of cancer when they are both age 55, she decides to continue with his plans for them and sells their home in Boston, driving west until she finds a promising town about 50 miles south of Chicago, and buys a Victorian house.  Betta and John were wrapped up in each other, and Betta is lonely after his death.  She reconnects with her old college roommates and makes friends with some of the quirky residents of her new home town.  When she tells one of her old roommates that she thinks she's entitled to a year of grief, the friend responds (pages 157-158):
"How about a year of pleasures, instead?...So many people who lose someone think that they need to behave in a prescribed way.  Of course you're hurting!  But what if you determined to find one thing every day that you...make happen...purposefully doing one thing that brings you happiness every single day, in a very conscious way.  It builds up the arsenal...And the days turn into years.  And the years turn into a lifetime."
That was the message John was trying to give her, too - perhaps still doing so with a series of cryptic notes on slips of paper he left in a wrapped cigar box a neighbor delivered after his death.  Betta puts the papers in a Chinese chest that they "had always loved best of anything we owned...Sometimes we'd hidden things in there to be found later as surprises, either to ourselves or to each other." (page 31)  Later she remembers what "green bowl" on one slip of paper means, and realizes about the other slips of paper, "Those that I had been unable to decipher, at least not then.  But here was the glory: We were not done with each other yet." (page 32)

The book starts strong with passages like these, with beautiful writing and excellent descriptions.  I could even buy into Betta's situation initially, which many reviewers found unrealistic (selling her Boston home for nearly two million and easily finding the perfect house in the perfect town, not to mention her apparently perfect marriage).  Unfortunately it fell apart for me in the last quarter of the 206-page book.  The plot becomes very unrealistic, and there are a number of minor characters who are not well-developed (especially the 20-somethings Matthew, Melanie, and especially Jovani, all of whose interactions with Betta make absolutely no sense).  Still, the book has a lot to say about dealing with grief, small pleasures, seizing the moment, and making the most of the time we are given.

Once again, this book had a preview of another of Berg's books in it, Home Safe, and the preview intrigued me enough to read that book as well.  Stay tuned.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[A complementary copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher, and it will be passed on to someone else to read and enjoy.] 

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