The Barnes & Noble Review
Being second runner-up is not an enviable position. The almost-winner might earn sympathetic smiles or polite applause but rarely genuine admiration. However, we all find ourselves in second place at some point, whether with a physique that falls short of supermodel perfection or a career with too few promotions to its name. In her new novel, Unitl the Real Thing Comes Along, Elizabeth Berg introduces us to Patty Murphy, a woman who is no different than the rest of us.
Patty calls herself "Ms. Runner Up" and with good reason. The man that she loves does not return her romantic affections. Her career as a realtor hit its peak with her last house sale four years ago. And the clamor of her unfulfilled maternal instincts is rivaled only by the ticktock of her biological clock. But Patty is a spirited, modern woman who is determined not to drown in her own desperation.
Patty's desires are strictly conventional: a traditional domestic life marked with true love running though her heart and toddlers running through her kitchen. However, Patty quickly realizes that there are no conventional solutions within reach. Love is elusive, and the dream of children remains just that: a dream. She does not relent, though, and Berg recounts Patty's quest for her fantasy and, perhaps even more important, emotional peace.
As in Berg's previous novels, What We Keep and Talk Before Sleep, the minute details of daily life lend familiarity and clarity to her characters' lives. However, these rich images create the fabric of Patty's dream worldratherthan her reality. She yearns for the details that belong to other people's lives, such as individually wrapped slices of American cheese between pudgy toddler hands. She craves the snap of clean sheets being thrown over her imaginary marital bed. These minute cornerstones of daily life give Patty's fantasies a palpable quality.
In the same manner that she focuses on the finer points of domestic life, Berg uses seemingly ordinary dialogue to shed light on the greater emotions at hand. While she touches on the melodramatic, she understands that the strongest, most influential moments are the small ones a stumbling, candid exchange between two insomniacs or the strained pleasantries between two friends on a long road trip. Berg draws us into her story with these simple exchanges, which are so personal we almost feel guilty for eavesdropping.
Also typical of Berg is the role of relationships in revealing her characters' beliefs, feelings, and actions. Though this novel focuses on Patty, her interactions define her just as clearly as her inner thoughts do. The variety of Patty's relationships serves more to emphasize the craving and contentment in her life than to sustain unique plots. Berg writes her supporting characters with authority; she does not waver in her characterizations. While they may lack depth at times, her characters have clear, defined personalities and transparent motives.
Berg carefully crafts a variety of dynamic relationships so that readers will find themselves identifying with at least one. Each of Patty's relationships evolves, not content to be defined by a stagnant, single emotion. A friendship, for instance, is plagued by jealousy, and the moments of disagreement are as important as those of bonding. A romance has all the ingredients for true love but still falls hopelessly short of the real thing. And parents who have always stood more as archetypes than people reveal their own weaknesses. Each relationship is an opportunity for Berg to depict what makes humans stretch, strain, conform, and mold to accommodate another human being.
Patty is the focus of the novel, but Berg moves beyond her, enriching her story with a vein of social awareness. Modern themes bring Patty's age-old drive to quench the maternal instinct into the new millennium. Sorrow is given a contemporary face as the result of death by AIDS. Likewise, a homosexual man's emotional longing is a fresh take on relationships. The modern options surrounding Alzheimer's and cancer challenge relationships that were once stable. These external factors also bring Patty to a new, higher level of emotional maturity as she grapples with hardships beyond her own.
What draws us to Patty is Berg's ability to enliven her somewhat common fantasy with a unique solution. As Patty craves domestic fulfillment, the suspense is created in knowing not if she attains it but how. While Patty's dreams make her identifiable as a person, it is her determination that makes her readable as a character.
Berg gives us an old friend in Patty. Our hope for her is not for some concrete resolution but for peace of mind and acceptance of life. As with any friendship, we may not understand Patty's motives or agree with her decisions, but we feel as though she has confided in us and brought us along for the ride.
Read an Excerpt
I used to think that the best thing to do when you had the blues was to soak in a bathtub full of hot water, submerge yourself so that only the top half of your head was in the outer world. You could feel altered and protected. Weightless. You could feel mysterious, like a crocodile, who is bound up with the wisdom of the natural world and does not concern herself with the number of dates she has per month or the biological time clock. You could feel purified by the rising steam. Best of all, you could press a washrag across your chest, and it would feel like the hand of your mother when you were little and suffering from a cold, and she'd lay her flat palm on you to draw the sickness out.
The problem with the bathtub method is that you have to keep fooling with the faucet to keep the water temperature right, and that breaks the healing spell. Besides that, as soon as you get out of the tub the solace disappears as quickly as the water, and you are left with only your annoying lobster self, staring blankly into the mirror.
These days I believe that museums are the place to go to lose your sorrow. Fine-art museums with high ceilings and severe little boxes mounted on the wall to measure the level of humidity; rooms of furniture displayed so truly the people seem to have just stepped out for a minute; glass cases full of ancient pottery in the muted colors of old earth. There are mummies, wearing the ultimate in long-lasting eyeliner; old canvases that were held between the hands of Vermeer; new canvases with emphatic smears of paint. The cafés have pastry as artful as anything else in the building; gift shops are stocked with jewelry modeled after the kind worn byRenaissance women--the garnet-and-drop-pearl variety. I buy that kind of jewelry, in love with its romantic history and the sight of it against the black velvet. Then I bring it home and never wear it because it looks stupid with everything I have. But it is good to own anyway, for the pleasure of laying it on the bedspread and then sitting beside it, touching it.
What I like most about museums is that the eVorts of so many people remain so long after they are gone. They made their marks. If you are an artist, you can hope to achieve that. If you are not an artist, you believe that having children is the closest you'll come.
Well, that's what I believe. And anyway, I have always preferred the company of children; I just like to be around them. Whenever my large family gets together on holidays, I sit at the kids' card table. It's so much more relaxing, what with the way the dishes are plastic, and manners of any kind optional. So much more interesting, too--no talk about current events, no holding forth by any overweight, overeducated aunt or uncle. There is talk only about things that are astonishing. Facts about the red ant, say, or the elaborate retelling of an unfortunate incident, such as the one where a kid vomited on the teacher's desk.
I always thought I'd have five or six children, and I have imagined so many lovely domestic scenes featuring me and my offspring. Here we are outside on a hot summer day, running through the sprinkler. The children wear bright fluorescent bathing suits in pink and green and yellow; I wear cutoffs and a T-shirt. There is fruit salad in the refrigerator. Later, I will let the older kids squirt whipped cream for the younger ones; then, if they pester me enough in the right way, I'll let them squirt it into their mouths--and mine.
Or here I am at the grocery store, my married hands unloading graham crackers and packages of American cheese that have already been broken into due to the eager appetite of the toddler in the carriage, who is dressed in tiny OshKosh overalls over a striped shirt. His fine hair, infused with gold and red, curls up slightly at the back of his neck. His swinging feet are chubby and bare; he has flung his sneakers and socks on top of the family-size pack of chicken breasts. His brothers and sisters are in school. Later in the afternoon, he will stand at the living-room window, watching for them to come home, squealing and bending his knees in a little joy dance when he sees them marching down the sidewalk toward him, swinging their lunch boxes in high, bright-colored arcs.
I have imagined myself making dinner while my dark-haired daughter sits at the kitchen table. She is making me a picture of a house with window boxes, choosing crayons with slow care. She is wearing yellow turtle barrettes in her hair, and a bracelet she made from string. "Hey, Mommy," she says, "do you want flowers on the ground, too?" Oh yes, I say. Sure. "Me too," she says. We smile.
I have imagined a fleshy constellation of small children and me, spread out and napping on my big bed while the newest baby sleeps in her crib. The pulled-down shades lift with the occasional breeze, then slap gently back against the windowsill. If you listen carefully, you can hear the small breathing sounds of the children, their soothing, syncopated rhythms. There is no other sound, not even from the birds; the afternoon is holding its finger to its lips. All the children have blankets and all of them are sucking their thumbs. All of them are read to every night after their baths. All of them think they are the favorite. None of them has ever had an illness of any kind, or ever will. (I mean, as long as I'm imagining.)
What I never imagined was the truth: me at thirty-six years of age, lying around on top of my made bed on a beautiful winter afternoon with shades pulled for an entirely diVerent reason, thinking, Why didn't I marry Johnny Tranchilla? So he was shorter than I was. He was very handsome and very romantic. He had black curly hair and naturally red lips. He sent me a love note in the mail after our first date and he was only nineteen, how brave! His father was loaded. He wore Weejuns with no socks. I could have been happy. Then I go on through the rest of my short list, thinking of the men I might possibly have married. Ron Anderson, who became a mildly famous artist and now lives in a huge
A-frame in the Rocky Mountains with his blonde wife, who is more beautiful than I'll ever be but not as much fun, I can guarantee it. She would never have broken into the planetarium like I did with Ron, would never have entered into the famous mustard-and-catsup fight at D.J.'s diner at three in the morning.
There was Tim Connor, too, who was quiet and tender and reliable--not exciting, but one grows tired of that after one is, oh, say, ninety-five. Frank Olds became a neurosurgeon! I could have lived in material comfort instead of making dinners out of soda crackers and cottage cheese and repeatedly showing houses to people who will never buy any of them.
The reason I didn't marry any of the various men I might have is always the same: Ethan Allen Gaines. I fell in love with him in sixth grade, and I never, never stopped loving him, not even after we tried to have a serious relationship in our late twenties and failed, and he took me out to dinner to a very nice place to break oV our engagement and told me it was because he was gay. "Oh, Ethan," I said, "that's okay, I'll marry you anyway." It was as inadvertent and embarrassing as a piece of meat flying out of my mouth. Ethan nodded, looked away. And then back at me. And I knew that was the end of that. Knew it in my head, anyway. The heart is always a diVerent matter. I kept the ring. It lives in a box as beautiful as it is.
"I told you," my friend Elaine said the day after we broke up. "I told you! Who else would keep rolled-up towels on their bathroom sink?"
"They were hand towels," I said.
". . . And?"
"A lot of people roll up their hand towels."
"Patty. It wasn't just the towels."
"I know," I said. "I know!"
But I hadn't known. I hadn't let myself.
Because consider this: once Ethan and I were at a lake and he rented a boat because I said I had never learned how to row. He told me what to do, made me get in alone, and watched from shore, shouting encouragement. I got stuck. I dropped an oar. Ethan was telling me how to come in with one oar, but I was just going around in circles. "I can't do it!" I yelled. He put a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes, and yelled back, "Yes, you can!" But I couldn't. And so he waded out to me in his beautiful new brown tweed pants and white sweater and pulled me in. And I sat, hanging onto both sides of the boat, watching the sun in his yellow hair and the moving muscles of his back. And when he got me in, we sat in the grass and he was wringing out his pants and sweater and dumping water from his shoes and I said I was so sorry, I knew how expensive those clothes were--they were from Anthony's, a very exclusive men's shop that served you Chivas in a cut-crystal glass while you fingered linens and silks. Ethan asked if I wanted to go shopping and I said sure, I'll buy you some new clothes, but not from Anthony's. He said no, I'll buy an outfit for both of us. I said, I ruined your pants! Why would you buy me an outfit? And he said because you can't row a boat.
The day before that, we'd been to see a movie with an exquisitely sad ending, the kind that makes your insides feel made of glass. My throat ached when the lights came up; I wanted to just run out of there so I wouldn't have to hear anything anyone said. Ethan's face seemed full of what I felt, too. "Run," he whispered, and we did. We ran to his car and slammed the doors and sat still, staring straight ahead and saying not one word. Then I looked over at him and he took my hand and said, "I know."
On the night Ethan told me he was gay, I said that admitting it must be a very liberating experience, that it must feel good. He said it did in many ways, but it hurt him that he had to hurt me. I said, well, we would always be best friends, wouldn't we? He said of course.
I didn't cry until I came home and climbed into the bathtub. Then I sobbed for a good twenty minutes. And then I leaned back, laid the washrag over my chest, inhaled the steamy air, and thought about when Ethan had come over when I was sick, just a few weeks earlier. He'd made chicken soup and three kinds of Jell-O, brought with him a variety of cheeses and crackers and fruit. He'd treated me with a tenderness that was somehow too competent. I'd watched him, longing for him to come over to me, kneel down, knock over my ginger ale, ignore it, take my hand, and say, "If you ever die, I'll kill myself." But he didn't do that. He ran his hand sweetly over my forehead, went to adjust the flame under the soup; then, frowning, flipped through the channels on the television. He covered me with a quilt he'd laundered, patted my feet aVectionately, then made a phone call. I felt as though he were zipped into a self that was hiding the real him--I could get close, but not there. I had put it down to a normal kind of male reticence, the kind that has a woman sigh and put her hand on her hip and call a girlfriend. I had believed that with the trust and intimacy of marriage it would get better--he would open himself completely to me.
But that night, with my engagement ring newly off my finger (though the stubborn indentation of it remained), I slid deeper into the water and thought about all the times Ethan and I had made love. Then I thought about those times again, and saw them true. I pulled the washrag up over my face. Beneath it, I think I was blushing.