Monday, March 21, 2011

Alice's Review: Say When

Say When: A NovelSummary: Husbands frequently tune out their spouses, but Frank Griffin makes valiant attempts to ignore Ellen, his wife of 10 years, when she announces she has a lover and wants a divorce in this endearing, undemanding novel by Berg (True to Form, etc.). Griffin (he goes by his last name) struggles to hold on to his normal life-namely his house and his eight-year-old daughter, Zoe-while repairing his relationship with Ellen. Refreshingly, Berg tells the story from Griffin's point of view: he refuses to leave home, insisting that he and Ellen live as roommates, and tries to wear her down with small acts of kindness. A decent man and a good provider, Griffin is also-he comes to realize-a less-than-exciting partner at times, dismissive of his wife's attempts to get him to read poetry and see art movies, or try anything new at all. Eccentric, shy Ellen, an isolated, stay-at-home mother whose only friend is the waitress at her regular diner, has her own flaws. In trying to live out her adolescence 20-plus years too late, she flaunts her new romance in ways that evoke either disdain or pity for her naïveté. Some readers may feel she gives up her quest for more freedom too quickly; others will appreciate the way she explores her complicated feelings about her marriage. Griffin, meanwhile, makes changes, too, trying a stint as a shopping mall Santa and winning a few dates. Berg has a talent for dialogue, and her skillfully crafted interactions between characters-scenes with tomboy Zoe are always a bright spot-are homey and convincing. These days, separation and divorce are commonplace, but a book that treats those subjects with Berg's tenderness and understanding is not. Publishers Weekly

Review:  Every once in a while I need to read a novel that speaks to my soul.  Sometimes one comes about happenstance (personally, I love those books); other times I know exactly where to find them.  Elizabeth Berg is that kind of storyteller.

A surprise visit to the library last Saturday brought me face to face with a section of Elizabeth Berg novels.  After perusing the titles I picked one, open it and read the inner sleeve. I didn’t even get through the first paragraph before promptly closing the book and headed to the check out.

I know I’m not alone when I say that I crave conflict in a story.  I crave hurt, I crave grief and turmoil.  As a reader, I think we all do.  Elizabeth Berg’s strength is her ability to describe human emotions in such a way that I can’t help but feel them too.

Say When is the first time I read a novel that dealt with adultery but from a man’s point of view.  Griffin was a regular guy, in love with his complicated wife, living the dream until the day the rug was pulled out from under him.  I enjoyed reading this story.  I liked Frank, I liked getting to know Ellen from his point of view, I liked his relationship with his daughter.  Most importantly, I liked the way Ms. Berg developed Frank’s character by taking away the most important thing to him.  I enjoyed how Ms. Berg kept Ellen’s motives a secret, that the novel was really about Griffith.  I started the novel feeling sympathy towards him.  By then end, I felt like a close companion and that whatever happened, he was a much stronger man, a more loving father because of it.

This isn’t one of Ms. Berg’s strongest novels, the ending predictable.  As always, the writing and emotional delivery was spot on but I think it lacked the soul of Open House or Dream When You Are Feeling Blue.  It’s not a must read, but I did enjoy taking this emotional ride with Griffith.  I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not one I’ll read again.

My favorite part of the novel came during a conversation Griffin had with his coworker Donna.  About compatibility, Donna says, “God above could come down and tell some people they were wildly incompatible with their spouses, and they’d still want to be with them.  It’s like artist sacrificing so much for their art.  For some people, their relationship is their art, they’ll give up everything for it.”

I love that and that alone was worth reading the novel.

Final Take: 3/5



shereese March 25, 2011 at 1:41 PM  

Hi Alice,
I read this book some years ago. At the time< I was a fan of Berg and looked for it on it's release date. It was refreshing to read this story from Griffin's POV. Readers should give this book its due attention. Thank you for helping me relive it.

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