Elizabeth Berg has made a name for herself by writing provocative, engaging novels that strike a deep emotional chord with women everywhere. Her topics have ranged from parental estrangement and the death of a dear friend, to the unique bonds that can develop between sisters, or between a straight woman and a gay man. But at the heart of each is a common themea woman put to the test, stretched to the limits of her emotional boundaries by the vagaries of life. Berg's latest, Open House, follows this tried-and-true formula by telling the story of one woman's struggle to survive divorce.
Throughout the 20 years of her marriage, Samantha Morrow has been content with her life, though she knows it isn't perfect. She has a nice home, a great son, and a husband she loves. But everything is turned upside down when her husband, David, tells her he wants out of their marriage. His rapid departure on the heels of this announcement leaves Sam horribly shocked, utterly confused, and oddly obsessed with Martha Stewart. Her initial reaction is to go on a spending spree, charging thousands of dollars worth of merchandise at Tiffany's to her husband's credit card. But when reality sets in and her husband cuts her off, she realizes that if she wants to keep the house she loves and make a home for herself and her son, she's going to have to generate some income.
Her first solution to this dilemma is to find a couple of roommates. Between the finished portion of the basement and the extra bedroom upstairs, Sam figures she can take on two boarders and mitigate a large portion of the mortgage payment. She finds her first boarder quicklythe septuagenarian mother of an acquaintanceand is delighted. Lydia Fitch is quiet, clean, concerned, friendly, and more than eager to play grandmother to Sam's son, Travis. Which is just as well, since Sam's own mother doesn't quite fit the bill. In fact, Sam's mother has made a career out of dating since the death of her husband two decades ago and is now determined to fix Sam up as soon as possiblea plan with foreseeable disasters written all over it.
Sam's life is further complicated when she starts looking for a job, for other than a gig singing in a band years ago, she's never been employed. But then King, the gentle giant of a man who helps Lydia move in, puts Sam in touch with the employment agency he works for. Suddenly Sam is off on a variety of short-term jobs, everything from making change at a Laundromat, to working as a carpenter's helper. When she gets the devastating news that Lydia has decided to marry her long-time beau and move out, Sam takes on a second boarder for the basement space: a sullen, depressed college student.
Meanwhile, Sam's relationship with David has given way to an awkward tiptoeing détente as he starts building a new life for himself, replete with an upscale condo and a new girlfriend. Travis starts acting out and behaving as sullenly as the new boarder, and Sam finds herself eating all the time and gaining weight. Throughout it all, the one steady force in Sam's life is King, whose implacable calm and supportive friendship provides a stabilizing rudder in the storm-tossed sea of Sam's life. But Sam soon discovers there is much more to King than she realized and it will force her to rethink everything she has come to hold true.
One of Berg's greatest strengths is her keen eye for the tiny details and intimate thoughts that allow her readers to relate to her characters on a deeply personal level. Watching Sam try to create a home that will nurture her soul by stocking it with the best of household items is funny but heartbreaking. Yet the journey she travels, a journey of self-discovery that shows home really is where the heart is, makes it all worthwhile. Berg's mix of pathos and humor (and in this case, a hilarious dead-on skewering of Martha Stewart) lends her prose a tantalizingly perverse flavor that is both entertaining and oddly satisfying.
Beth Amos is the author of several mainstream suspense thrillers, including Second Sight, Eyes of Night, and Cold White Fury.. She lives in Wisconsin, and is at work on her next novel.