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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.