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"PICK UP ELIZABETH BERG'S WHAT WE KEEP, A SMALL BOOK WITH A HUGE HEART."
—New York Newsday
"BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN . . . What We Keep is about ties that are buried but not broken, wounds that are dressed but never heal, and love that changes form but somehow survives. . . . [Ginny Young] crosses the country for a reluctant reunion with the mother she has not seen in 35 years. During the long hours of her flight, she returns in memory to the summer when she turned 12 and her family turned inside out. . . . Berg's tender depiction of a young girl's view of the world is uncanny and gives this story its heart. She captures perfectly what it was like to grow up in the '50s, presenting it like a long-forgotten, but still sharp photograph. . . . What We Keep will touch you. It will allow you, for a few hours, to see the world through the eyes of a 12-year-old and feel in your adult heart the stubborn endurance of love."
"BERG'S FIFTH NOVEL IS ONE OF HER MOST COMPELLING. . . . Berg limns the character with such vivid detail, and such honesty, that reading the book is like having an intimate conversation with a friend who is baring her soul. . . . An excellent book to savor and pass on to a mother, a sister, or a close friend."
—Charleston Post and Courier
“COMPELLING . . . Berg limns the character with such vivid detail, and such honesty, that reading the book is like having an intimate conversation with a friend who is baring her soul. . . . An excellent book to savor and pass on to a mother, a sister, or a close friend.”
—Charleston Post and Courier
Q: Who would you consider your literary influences?
A: I don't have literary influences, insofar as having someone who helped shape my writing. I didn't study writing; rather I was a registered nurse. I wrote for myself by myself. That is not to say there aren't writers that I love, but I don't feel influenced by anyone other than my genes in terms of writing.
Q: How do you like living in Massachusetts?
A: Physically, there is no place like it. I enjoy the land and the seasons. But as far as mentality, there is no place like the West Coast. But my home is here in the Northeast. They are too happy for me, and I need a little balance in my life.
Q: Have you read anything recently that just blew you away?
A: Yes, I recently read and loved this collection of short stories called Lost Lake by Mark Slouka. A very small book (physically) that is fantastic. Another book I loved is The Short History of a Prince by Jane Hamilton.
Q: Your latest novel, What We Keep, covers a family reunion of sorts between two sisters and their mother. Do you have a sister? Are you close to her?
A: Yes, I do have a sister, and she is a dear pal, even though she was very mean to me when we were growing up. But that is the job of an older sister.
1. Ginny possesses an extraordinary memory. In fact, she suggests that, through memory, "I become again the person I was then" (page 10) and thus captures a "true vision of the past" (page 11). What is a "true vision of the past"? Is it Ginny's twelve-year-old vision? Is it her adult vision? Does Ginny's effort to remember the past cause her to think about it differently?
2. Berg dedicates What We Keep to "women who risk telling the hard truths." What do you think of Martha Hamilton, the passenger on Ginny's flight who asks Ginny some very hard questions and makes a few tough statements? Does Martha push Ginny closer to "telling the hard truths"?
3. Martha notes that people like "differentness" (page 26) in everything except their mothers. What does Martha mean? Do you agree?
4. Throughout the novel Ginny suggests that she knows her mother intimately. In fact, Ginny's early fantasy about discovering her mother's "link with royalty" (page 17) suggests that Ginny knows her mother better than Marion knows herself. Why is this knowledge so important to Ginny?
5. When Sharla dreams that Marion has a third eye, Ginny expects that Marion will comfort Sharla: "Never mind the dream; no matter what it was, she would take it away" (page 105). Why is this dream so startling? Is Marion able to comfort her daughter? Why or why not?
6. Knowing, in retrospect, that neither shenor Sharla knew Marion as well as they thought, Ginny feels that her mother should have attempted to communicate with them that summer: "To say something about what she must have been thinking" (page 85). However, the narrative is full of moments in which Marion tries to tell her daughters about herself only to be interrupted or ignored. Stories of past boyfriends (page 66) and hints of Marion's own desires (page 89) are constantly squelched by Ginny and Sharla's demands. Why didn't the daughters listen? Why couldn't Marion communicate with her daughters successfully?
7. After her first long absence, Marion tries to tell her daughters about her experience. From the moment of its "odd beginning" (page 209), it's a story Ginny doesn't like. Marion isn't, Ginny suggests, a very good storyteller: "She would make up stories that were not very good, as this one was not" (page 211). Finally, Ginny interrupts her mother's story for another: "'I have so much history, ' I said. 'My teacher, Mr. Stoltz, he's nuts. He thinks all we have in our lives is history'" (page 214). Why is the word "history" emphasized in this way? What does Marion's story have to do with Ginny's "history"? Why does Ginny think her mother is a bad storyteller? What do you think of Marion's storytelling?
8. What We Keep is full of descriptions of houses. Ginny and Sharla sneak through Mrs. O'Donnell's dusty, empty rooms, and rifle through Jasmine's drawers. Both daughters are aware of Marion's "house folder" (page 87), and offer opinions about her furniture rearrangements (page 88), her Clear Falls apartment (page 225), and her California home (page 259). What is the significance of these spaces?
9. Marion appears to be the typical 1950s housekeeper--at ease in an apron, involved in the weekly neighborhood coffee klatch, a willing Tupperware party hostess. However, she seems to transform the ordinary meaning of even these events. For instance, why does Marion host a Tupperware party on her birthday? Why are her daughters so startled by this decision? What significance does her action have in their minds? In her own mind? In yours?
10. In what ways is Jasmine different from Marion? In what ways is she similar? How do you feel towards Jasmine initially? How do you feel about her at the conclusion of the novel? How responsible do you hold Jasmine for Marion's decisions?
11. Marion gives her daughters paintings for the first Christmas they spend apart. Ginny receives a painting of mother and child. Sharla receives a painting of a bird. What stories do these paintings tell? How are they related?
12. Sharla says that her painting "doesn't make any sense" (page 245), but the image of the bird certainly has meaning for Marion. Ginny realizes during her own flight to meet her mother that Marion freed the family parakeet, Lucky, during that summer (page 141). Ginny also remembers the moment in which she and Wayne witnessed Marion "flapping her arms like wings, and walking about in circles" (page 153), as well as the afternoon during which her Parents constructed collages with wings and airplanes. What meaning did these images hold for Marion?
13. Our earliest introduction to Ginny's father comes through her memories of him. How do you feel about Steven? Does Marion's story alter your feelings about him? Consider Steven's defense of Marion's absence: "I believe she thinks she has reasons" (page 241). Consider his silence when confronted with Sharla's conviction of her mother's lesbianism: "'What did he say?' I asked, and Sharla said, 'Nothing. He must have known'" (page 246). Do you think that his statement and his silence are defensible or not? Do you think he's a good father?
14. Wayne is the only other significant man in Ginny's life that summer. While Ginny feels a constant affection for her father, her feelings toward Wayne are rather ambivalent. She doesn't want her relationship with Wayne reduced to a "that-summer-at-the-lake story, " but suggests herself that she was acting out of a "pied-piper delirium" (page 165). Why does she describe her relationship with Wayne so ambivalently? Why is she relieved when he leaves so suddenly?
15. In what ways does Ginny's relationship with Wayne parallel her mother's relationship with Jasmine? Does her own relationship with Wayne help Ginny understand her mother?
16. Wayne tells Ginny that "people want to be fooled" (page 157). What does he mean? Do you think he's right?
17. The climax of the novel--the meeting of Ginny and her mother--is, in fact, not written. The women come face to face and, suddenly, the text stops. Ginny can't speak. Marion begins "saying syllables that are not words" (page 254). Why is this moment in the novel not written?
18. Marion confesses misgivings about her mothering while sitting on Ginny's bed: "I think I've raised you so wrong.... I did something wrong. I did everything wrong, and I'm sorry" (page 187). Do you think Marion's mothering was "wrong"? If so, was her choice to leave "right"?
19. Ginny is clearly aware of the impact that Marion's actions have had upon her own mothering. Has Ginny learned from Marion's errors? Do you consider Ginny to be a good mother?
20. Ginny herself asks the novel's most pressing questions: "I am wondering what it is that we ask of our mothers: what do they owe us? What is it that we owe them?" (page 270) How does she answer these questions? How do you answer them?
21. At the beginning of the novel Ginny acknowledges her love of science: "I would stare at formulas and admire them for their spare beauty without being able to grasp their meaning. The fact that they cleanly explained some higher law to someone else was enough for me. It comforted me" (page 14). At the end of the novel, Marion makes a similar confession: "I would read something like the first law of thermodynamics, and just find it enormously comforting. I still do" (page 261). What is it about science that comforts Ginny? Marion?
22. Why is the novel titled What We Keep? What is it that Ginny "keeps" from her experience?
Posted July 24, 2001
I just loved this book. It depicted the summer of a 12 year old girl growing up in the 1950s so perfectly. I really felt I knew this girl by the end of the book. My only complaint -- I didn't want it to end. A quick and easy read, but not lacking in content and feeling.
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Posted May 5, 2012
Posted November 11, 2011
Posted November 1, 2011
Beautifully written. This book is touching and true with approachable, believable characters. Although some of Berg's later books are not as well written, this one is a treasure not to be missed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 8, 2011
Posted January 29, 2010
I usually only read non-fictions books but wanted to read something different. If you have a sister(s) you will def relate to this book. Some nights I would try to keep myself up bec I wanted to know what would happen next. A sign of a good book:)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 1, 2009
Really enjoyed this book! Quick read, read it in 2 days. The writing is so descriptive, I felt that I was there with Ginny and Sharla during their late night talks and adventures. It's about 2 sisters that are really close, and how they deal with their mother leaving them at such a young age. Their father took great care of them, but it couln't quite fill the resentment and confusion in why their mother left...Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 29, 2008
Posted July 18, 2008
I liked this novel, along with other of Berg's, because it made me look back at some things my own mother did in a new way. Perhaps life wasn't so easy for her either, just like Berg's character in this story. An enjoyable read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 27, 2006
I have read many of Elizabeth Berg's novels and so far, this was my favorite. It's a fast read, an interesting story and hilarious in parts. I highly recommend any of her novels.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 22, 2005
Posted May 31, 2005
Posted May 17, 2004
I went to the barnes and Noble store in the local mall and asked the clerk to recommend a book similar to the ones I had just finished (She's come undone, The Lovely Bones)and she recommended this one. I am less than half way through and this book still has not captured me and pulled me like the last two that i read, but i can only tell with time if this book is as what the clerk said. It is an ok story so far.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 1, 2003
This was such a fast read! I immediately loved the characters and fell in love with the main character. This is the kind of book to read on the beach because there is nothing to follow or think about. Just a sheer pleasurable story!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 13, 2002
Elizabeth Berg has an incredible talent for making her characters real! When reading her books, I consistently find myself smiling and nodding my head in response to little details in life that she describes so perfectly. In this novel, I felt frustrated with the mother's journey to "find herself"...not something I would have expected from this particular character. At any rate, this is a book that tugs at your heart and keeps you reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 13, 2002
I enjoyed this to the point I started slowing down in the closing pages as I did not wish to finish. This truly is brilliant writing which captures. Maybe since I grew up in the 50's the story called to me more than a to date story, but the creativity is absolutely...read it you'll know what I mean.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 15, 2002
Posted August 10, 2002
What We Keep is a beautifully written story that I will read again and again. It is honest, touching and meaningful. And I will give it as a gift to my sisters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 2, 2000
Another terrific novel from Elizabeth Berg. Captivates the reader from the very first word, and doesn't let them go until the very last. It's obvious Ms. Berg writes straight from her heart, and this book, like her others I've read, is no different. This trait propels her book straight to the reader's heart. A wonderfully honest portrait of sisterhood and motherhood. An exceptional book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 13, 2000
I accidentally ran across Elizabeth Berg while browsing for another author. I never ended up getting the original book I went for, these books just from the back cover captivated my attention. Berg does an excellent job of drawing the reader in. She is so descriptive of her characters, and I truly liked the characters, even the mother even though I thought she was a little strange. Once I picked this book up, I could not put it down, and I read it in a day and a half. I highly recommend this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.