The Art of Mending

The Art of Mending

3.5 46
by Elizabeth Berg

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"It begins with the sudden revelation of astonishing secrets - secrets that have shaped the personalities and fates of three siblings, and now threaten to tear them apart. In author Elizabeth Berg's new novel, unearthed truths force one seemingly ordinary family to reexamine their disparate lives and to ask themselves: Is it too late to mend the hurts of the past?"…  See more details below


"It begins with the sudden revelation of astonishing secrets - secrets that have shaped the personalities and fates of three siblings, and now threaten to tear them apart. In author Elizabeth Berg's new novel, unearthed truths force one seemingly ordinary family to reexamine their disparate lives and to ask themselves: Is it too late to mend the hurts of the past?" Laura Bartone anticipates her annual family reunion in Minnesota with a mixture of excitement and wariness. Yet this year's gathering will prove to be much more trying than either she or her siblings imagined. As soon as she arrives, Laura realizes that something is not right with her sister. Forever wrapped up in events of long ago, Caroline is the family's restless black sheep. When Caroline confronts Laura and their brother, Steve, with devastating allegations about their mother, the three have a difficult time reconciling their varying experiences in the same house. But a sudden misfortune will lead them all to face the past, their own culpability, and their common need for love and forgiveness.

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Editorial Reviews

Linda Barrett Osborne
It seems appropriate that Laura Bartone, the protagonist in Elizabeth Berg's 13th novel, should be a quilter: someone who pieces together a whole out of fabric that might otherwise have been discarded. Berg constructs The Art of Mending in much the same way. She uses snapshots from an album, keenly observed recollections and fragments of conversation to form a pattern that is fully perceptible to the characters and the reader only when it is completed, a pattern they need to perceive their history in a new light.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Bestselling novelist Berg (Talk Before Sleep; Open House) explores memory, love and forgiveness in her flawed but moving 12th novel. At her annual family reunion, Laura Bartone, a 50-something "quilt artist," is forced to confront the secrets that have long haunted her family. Her emotionally unstable sister, Caroline, tells Laura and their brother, Steve, that their mother abused her as a child. As Laura and Steve-whose own childhoods were reasonably happy-struggle to make sense of Caroline's accusations and wonder how they could've been oblivious to or complicit in what happened, their father dies. This could be the stuff of melodrama, but Berg generally manages to avoid it. Her prose is often luminous and buoyant, and her insights can be penetrating. Her big ideas, though, are too frequently interrupted by the sort of domestic-detail overdoses that belong in less ambitious novels ("I hung up, flipped the turkey burgers for the last time, dumped the oven-baked French fries into a basket and salted them, sliced tomatoes, drained the water off the ears of corn..."). Other shortcomings include a few gender stereotypes and a husband and children for Laura who seem too good to be true ("Sometimes it seemed like I was making it up," Laura thinks). But Laura's thornier relationships with her mother and siblings are carefully rendered and compelling. Berg has written a nuanced account of a family's implosion, with enough ambiguity and drama to give book clubs-the book's likely audience-plenty to discuss and to keep any reader intrigued, right up to the fittingly redemptive ending. Agent, Lisa Bankoff. 8-city author tour. (Apr. 13) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
At a family reunion, Laura and brother Steve learn some unpleasant secrets about their mother from their sister. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A seemingly perfect family deliberately hides unpalatable truths that come to light only decades later. As usual in her characteristic fast-paced prose, Berg (Say When, 2003, etc.) explores a timely subject-here, an abusive mother whose actions went long-undetected-as she introduces 50-ish narrator and professional quilter Laura Bartone. Laura has two siblings, Steve and Caroline, and is planning, with husband Pete and their two children, to join them and their elderly parents for the annual family reunion. Just before the Bartones set off, Laura is phoned by Caroline, who asks that the three of them get together without their spouses to discuss issues that are bothering her. As a child, Laura was a bossy and sometimes cruel tease, often hurting Caroline, who was sensitive and subject to dark moods and fits of weeping. Caroline also, Laura recalls, was constantly trying to please their beautiful but emotionally cold mother. The siblings meet as planned, and Caroline announces that she's depressed, is seeing a therapist, and is about to divorce husband Bill. She suspects the depression is caused by events in her childhood, and she asks Steve and Laura whether they can remember anything about their mother's treatment of her as a child, particularly anything abusive. Laura and Steve are shocked, thinking that Caroline must be mistaken or overreacting. But then Laura and Steve begin remembering incidents from their own childhood, and Laura learns that Caroline was hospitalized one summer when she and Steve were away at camp, after her mother had attacked Caroline with a knife. Their mother was also abused by her mother and lost a much loved baby before Caroline was born. As the three siblingstry to cope with these revelations, their father suddenly dies, but not before he alludes to secrets long kept hidden. A less-well-developed plot than usual, but, as always, readable. Agency: ICM
From the Publisher
"Maybe Freud didn’t know the answer to what women want, but Elizabeth Berg certainly does.”
USA Today

“Elizabeth Berg writes with humor and a big heart about resilience, loneliness, love, and hope. And the transcendence that redeems.”—Andre Dubus

“Berg’s writing is to literature what Chopin’s études are to music—measured, delicate, and impossible to walk away from until they are completed.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Berg knows her characters intimately....She gets under their skin and leaves the reader with an indelible impression of lives challenged and changed.”
The Seattle Times

“Elizabeth Berg is one of those rare souls who can play with truths as if swinging across the void from one trapeze to another.”
—Joan Gould

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.43(w) x 6.91(h) x 0.71(d)

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Chapter 1

This is the Minnesota state fair I remember most:

It was 1960, a Saturday morning when I was eleven years old, and I was the first one up. I had brought my mayonnaise jar stuffed with dollar bills and coins into the living room, spilled the money out onto the carpet, and then stepped over it to turn the television on to a low volume. I was going to watch The Three Stooges while I sorted my fortune.

I had just finished counting when my father came into the room. He was wearing a pair of trousers and a T-shirt and his battered old leather slippers speckled with paint the color of my bedroom walls. His blond crew cut was damp; you could see the glistening of water in it, making him look anointed, and he smelled of a citrusy aftershave. He was headed for the kitchen, where he would make coffee and bacon. This was his Saturday routine: He'd take a cup of coffee up to my mother in bed, prepared the way

she liked it, with an eighth of a cup of cream and three level teaspoons of sugar. Then she would come down in one of her silk robes and make pancakes to go with the bacon.

I always hoped she would wear her peach-colored robe. It was my favorite, for its generous yardage and elaborate ruffled trim. Seeing what my mother wore was always interesting to me, whether it was the three-quarter-sleeve blouses she wore with the collars up, or the full skirts, tightly belted, or the pastel-colored cashmere sweater sets, or one of her many bathing suits, works of art designed to showcase her spectacular figure. Those suits came complete with cunning little skirts and jackets to wear over them, and broad-brimmed sun hats trimmed with fabric bands in coordinating colors. Before she was married, my mother worked for several years for an upscale department store, parading beautiful clothes before rich men's wives. She inspired more sales than any other model before or after her; everyone wanted to look like her, though of course no one did. Think Grace Kelly with red hair and green eyes-that was my mother. But it wasn't just her model's training that made it so interesting to see what she wore, it was a quality inside herself. Charisma, my father said, but it seemed to me to be more than that. Other people had charisma. No one had what my mother did.

She had a large collection of jewelry, too; sometimes she allowed me to take one necklace at a time over to her bed, where I would lay it out and turn it this way and that, making it shine hard in the sunlight. "Are these real diamonds?" I once asked, and she said, "Why have them if they're not?"

That Saturday morning, my father saw me sitting on the floor and came over to survey my neat stack of dollar bills, my coins piled high. "How much have you got there?" he asked.

"Forty-seven dollars and eighty-three cents." I kept my smile tight to hold back my pride and stuck all my fingers between all my toes for the low pull of pleasure.

My father whistled between his teeth in a falling-bomb way I greatly admired and could not emulate despite hours of practice. He took his glasses off to polish them on the bottom of his T-shirt, then held them up for inspection: still dirty-he never managed to get them completely clear. "How'd you get that much?" He resettled his glasses on his face, pushing them up snug against his nose, a gesture I associated so strongly with him that I reflexively took issue with others doing it.

I said I'd been saving for a long time. I told him about the groceries I'd carried in for Mrs. Riley, "Mrs. Five Operations," my mother called her, for her incessant replaying of the laminectomies she'd endured. I'd pulled weeds for Muriel and Helen Lockerby, the two wild-haired old-lady sisters who lived around the corner. I'd babysat for little Rachel Thompson every Thursday after school while her mother went to run errands, and I'd occasionally walked their dog, an arthritic old German shepherd named Heintz, who seemed to me to grimace every time he lifted his leg. I'd made pot holders and sold them around the neighborhood-once, a man who answered the door in his bathrobe had bought my entire week's inventory, which made him in my eyes equally wonderful and weird. Also, though I did not tell my father this, I'd recently found a ten-dollar bill on the street, and I'd made no effort whatsoever to find the owner.

My father told me to wait for just a minute and disappeared. I sat immobile, my high spirits on hold, because I thought he was going to consult with my mother about how much I'd have to share with my eight-year-old sister, Caroline, who had saved little, and my seven-year-old brother, Steve, who had saved nothing at all. But that's not what happened. Instead, my father reappeared, holding his wallet. He took out a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to me. Mutely, I put it on the bottom of my pile, so no one would see. But I found out later that each of us kids had received the same gift.

I still remember what I brought home from the fair that day: a lantern that glowed Gatsby green in the dark, which I intended to take under the covers with me to read by; a bag of Tom Thumb doughnuts so redolent with the scent of cinnamon sugar it nearly levitated me; a poster of a brown mare and her foal, lying in a field full of daisies. The rest of the money I'd spent on rides and on chances to win something big on the midway. Over and over I tried, and over and over the carnies at the tacky wooden booths smiled and said, "Sorry. Want to try again?" They knew what I'd say. From the time I was quite small, I had about me a certain air of heedless determination.

When my funds were gone, I went to the blanket my parents had spread out near the edge of the fairgrounds. This was our meeting place, our refueling station-our family went to the fair once a year and stayed there all day. We kept a cooler filled with drinks and sandwiches and fruit, deli containers of various salads, Oreos and Chips Ahoy!-all this though we knew we would be gorging on fair food. There were also pillows and Band-Aids, suntan lotion and insect repellent, aspirin and a couple of Ace bandages. My parents took turns manning the station, sitting in a lawn chair and amusing themselves in their own way-my mother flipping through fashion magazines or crocheting, my father doing crossword puzzles or reading one of the historical tomes he so enjoyed. He tried often to interest us kids in history, saying it was invaluable for putting things into perspective. "You think something's really great?" he'd say. "A long time ago, there was something just as good or better. You think something's really bad? Look in the past-you'll find something worse. Think something can never happen again? Wrong! History repeats itself-that's what you can be sure of." But we, like most children, did not resonate much to things beyond the day at hand. History had nothing to do with us.

My father also liked people-watching-he could sit for hours and stare at all the fairgoers who passed by him and feel perfectly entertained. He just got a charge out of people, their frailties and foolishness as much as their more admirable characteristics. I remember once lying in bed and overhearing an argument between my parents. This was a rare thing; they almost never crossed each other. But that night my mother was yelling: "Is everything just fine with you, then?" After a moment, I heard him say simply, Yes, everything was. An accusatory silence followed. I rose up on one arm and leaned toward my parents' bedroom wall. I heard the ticking of my bedside clock; the movement of night air in the trees outside my window; then, finally, the even, comical sounds of my father snoring. I lay back down and fingered the buttons on my nightgown, and contemplated the disturbing possibility that my parents were not perfect.

On that day at the fair when I came back to the blanket, my mother was off with my brother and my sister was with a new neighbor her own age whom we'd brought along in the desperate hope that Caroline and she would become friends. My father was alone. I sat on the blanket beside his chair, and he gave my shoulder a little squeeze. Then he moved out of the chair to sit beside me. He looked at me for a long moment then asked, "How are you doing, Laura?"

I held my hands out, palms up. "I spent it all."

"Yes," he said. "But I meant, how are you doing in general? Is there . . . well, how's life treating you?"

I smiled. I thought he might be kidding. Sometimes he would ask me about politics in the same false and jocular way. "How about that Eisenhower?" he would say. And I would shrug and say, "I don't know." But his expression now was serious; he asked me again how I was, so I said, "Good, I guess." Then, feeling this was not enough, I described my excitement at finding out I'd be getting the teacher I wanted that year at school: Mrs. Lindemeyer, who was old as the hills, and an easy grader.

My father nodded. "So you're okay, then, are you? You're happy?" The question was odd to me-I didn't ever really think about whether or not I was happy-but I said yes. It seemed he was looking for something he couldn't name and I couldn't decipher, and the closest I could come to satisfying us both was for me to say I was fine; I was "happy." He returned to his chair, and we sat in uneasy silence until the others returned.

My brother, his mouth rimmed with red from a candy apple he'd just eaten, had spent all his money too. My sister had spent none. I remember being astounded at this; angry, too, that Caroline would be left with so much when I now had nothing. "How can you have fun if you don't even spend any money?" I asked her.

A pleated caramel-apple wrapper skittered by, and she captured it beneath her shoe. "I had fun."

I snorted. "How?"

She looked up at me, an irritating calmness in her eyes. "I watched." The new neighbor, Linda Carmichael, confirmed this: While Linda rose high up in the sky on the Ferris wheel, Caroline stood watching and waving from below.

"That's retarded," I said. I could tell Linda agreed with me, and I remember thinking that she and Caroline would never be friends; here was yet another opportunity Caroline had lost.

"You mind your own business, Laura," my mother said quietly. That's what she said when I told Caroline she was stupid not to eat the treats that were handed out at various classroom celebrations, too. Every time there was a party at school, Caroline ate nothing. No candy corn at Halloween, no message hearts on Valentine's Day, no red- and green-sprinkled spritz cookies at Christmas, no garishly decorated cupcakes brought in because someone in class was having a birthday. Instead, anything she ever got she tented with paper towels and then carefully carried home on the school bus. As soon as she walked in the door, she presented it to my mother and my mother ate it.

I never understood this about Caroline. Now I do. It's all clear now: the times Caroline, as a small child, lay in the hall outside the bathroom door while my mother bathed. The presents she later bought for her with babysitting money: barrettes, scarves, lipsticks. Paperback books and velvet roses. "Brownnoser!" I once whispered after she'd given my mother a bottle of dime-store perfume. Caroline ignored me; she sat at the kitchen table where I was doing homework and began pulling books and papers out of her schoolbag. She was in sixth grade then, and I in eighth. "Brownnoser!" I said again, out loud.

"Laura," my mother said, and I returned to my homework. There was a tiny smile on Caroline's face, and I kicked her under the table. She did not kick me back; rather, she moved away to another chair and straightened with pinched-nose efficiency a stack of notebook paper that did not need straightening. She cocked her head slightly to the left and the right as she did it. I hated it. I glared at her between narrowed lids; I believed I could feel heat coming from my eyeballs. All this was to no avail; Caroline looked at her schoolwork only.

Then came a gift I remember particularly well, something given to my mother by Caroline the Christmas she was sixteen. It was the last gift opened that year, and it was a framed photograph, an 8-by-10. My mother stared at it briefly, murmured a low thanks, and started to put the picture back in the box.

"What is it?" I said. "Let me see!" I snatched it away. The picture was of Caroline wearing one of my mother's slinky evening gowns, her hand on her hip. Caroline's auburn hair, the same color as my mother's, was styled in a twist like the one my mother always wore. Her makeup was heavily applied in a style exactly my mother's own, and she stared unsmilingly into the camera. It was chilling, the look on Caroline's face: the flat eyes, the hard line of mouth, the remove. I had never seen such a look. "What is this supposed to be?" I asked.

My brother took the photo from me and looked at it. He burst into laughter, the goofy adolescent-boy kind, and Caroline grabbed the picture from him and threw it onto the floor. "It isn't for you," she said. She turned to stare at my mother, who did not look back at her, and then left the room.

"Caroline!" my father called after her. "Come back here!" But she did not return. My father rose, as though to go after her. Then he saw the picture, and he sat back down.

This I understand now, too-as well as what my father meant that long-ago day at the fair, when what he was really asking was if I knew.

Excerpted from The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg Copyright© 2004 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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The Art of Mending 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Given the 5-star rating I awarded this book, it's obvious that I liked it, but I am also a fan of Elizabeth Berg. This book really spoke to me in odd ways. I continuously read that other fans were somewhat disappointed (some very) because the characters weren't likeable, that the father dying during a family reunion was implausible, and that the story should have been told through the victim's viewpoint rather than that of her sister's. I disagree on all points except the last and even then, it's a weak agreement. I liked all of the characters except for the brother, as I thought he was a self-absorbed, selfish, and rude large child. My opinion on the father dying during the family reunion is that it's definitely credible even if it did make the abuse allegations a cliche (since the story implied knowledge on his part). I think although it would seem more sensible to have the point of view come directly from the victimized sister, it was probably important to have it come from the older sister. She was a quiltmaker; the theme in her quilt creations are escape. What was she trying to get away from? This book certainly contained a story I identified with; I think other people may as well, whether admittedly or not. I highly recommend this book.
Allison_Hostman More than 1 year ago
I work in social services and this book gave me the opportunity, again, to think about families and mending relationships. This book would be a "good read" for all ages altho ... might be more appreciated by readers over 40.
Tl44 More than 1 year ago
I'm a huge fan of Elizabeth Berg's writing; however, this book fell slightly short of my expectations. The idea behind the story was good; it just wasn't executed in a fun, page-turning way. It moved along too slow, definitely not a nailbiting, can't-wait-to-see-how-it-ends book. I found it rather boring and the only reason I kept reading was because I always finish the book once I start.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I grew up in a family that was so much like this one that this book took my breath away. For someone who grew up as I did, Berg's characters were so accurate that I could give them names. I read one review where the reader thought the brother was shallow. I saw the depth of his pain and what he had to do to protect himself. My mother went to any length to keep her prescription drug addiction fed. Nearly every night, she would take seven to nine Noludars (sleeping pills) and then my brother and I would carry her to bed. She finally succeeded in killing herself after several tries. AND YET, we loved her. When my siblings and I gather together, we speak of her fondly. We might have shared the same experiences but our memories are vastly different. We have finally forgiven her but the trips that each of us took to get to that point differed greatly. Each person has to take these journeys alone and at their own pace. Each person has their own story. I saw hope at the end of Berg's book and I thank her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The adult characters had no depth, it was impossible to engage with them. The childhood memories of the older sister were a hoot. And as a quilter, I fell in love with the description of the sewing room. These little snippets were enjoyable, too bad the main story and the characters were so flat. I would not have finished it if it had not been chosen by my book club.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Of most of Elizabeth Berg's work, this was disappointing as it didn't have the usual kick and humor like her other novels. Book is ok, but not great. I started and finished the book in one day; proof of light reading. If you're looking for a true Elizabeth Berg book, this is not of her usual reputation with a surprise/uplifting ending. In all honesty it loses the reader in the last 30 pages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never read this author's work before and after reading this book, I will never read her work again. This book could have been so much better if she had went into the life of the mother and found out why she was the way she was and the abuse should have been touched on more intensely by using flashbacks from the victim's point of view. I really think the story should have been told by the victim (Caroline) and not the sister. The only reason I kept reading this book is because I thought it was going somewhere, but when I found out it wasn't going anywhere I wished I had set it aside and read another one of the books on my list.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Could have been a short story. Skip the book unless you can't find anything else to read. Not her best book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not surprisingly, Elizabeth Berg's latest novel an honest look into a family's struggle to survive. Her characters read so true you might think they live next door. We feel Laura's confusion, frustration and anger when her family's past interupts her current life. A book you hate to put down and don't really want to end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Now in her fifties, quilter Laura Bartone looks forward to the annual extended family gathering in Minnesota. Her husband Pete and their two children will accompany her as she gets together with her parents and her two siblings and their families. However, before they leave, her younger sister Caroline calls Laura to ask for some private time with her and their brother Steve.................................. When the siblings meet, Caroline explains that she is very depressed and considering a divorce. Laura thinks back to how as a child she used to abusively tease her sister, who always tried so hard to gain approval from their aloof mother, but failed. Caroline explains that she is getting professional help, but believes her melancholy stems from childhood abusive events that she buried. She asks her siblings if they can recall any cruelty from their parents, especially their mother towards her. At first in denial, Laura and Steve start recalling frightening horrendous incidents and other revelations surface, but whether that will help the depressed Caroline or make things worse for her and her now stunned siblings, only time will tell.................................. THE ART OF MENDING is an intriguing deep look at how adults cope or fail to muddle through childhood traumas. The story line is clearly a character study that enables the audience to see deep inside the three siblings, but is told from the lens of Caroline. Though the spouses and children seem so perfect (almost Stepford) so that they never negatively ¿impact¿ on the trio especially Caroline, fans of an insightful family drama will welcome Elizabeth berg¿s solid perceptive work...................................... Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unrealistic, stilted dialogue, poor transitions, overall a poor offering from a gifted writer. Very disappointing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
book-a-holick More than 1 year ago
This is my first Berg book, and it will not be my last, as I really enjoyed it. I will warn other readers that the book will be very upsetting for people that endured physical and/or emotional abuse as children. But then again, this book may help them resolve some of their traumatic childhood issues.
Tabatha87 More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful writing. I wish the book was a little longer but maybe a next book will finish the story.
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