Year of Pleasures

Year of Pleasures

4.1 63
by Elizabeth Berg
     
 

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In this rich and deeply satisfying novel by the beloved author of The Art of Mending, and Open House, a resilient woman embarks upon an unforgettable journey of adventure, self-discovery, and renewal.  Betta Nolan moves to a small town after the death of her husband to try to begin anew. Pursuing a dream of a different kind of life, she is

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Overview

In this rich and deeply satisfying novel by the beloved author of The Art of Mending, and Open House, a resilient woman embarks upon an unforgettable journey of adventure, self-discovery, and renewal.  Betta Nolan moves to a small town after the death of her husband to try to begin anew. Pursuing a dream of a different kind of life, she is determined to find pleasure in her simply daily routines. Among those who help her in both expected and unexpected ways are the ten-year-old boy next door, three wild women friends from her college days, a twenty-year-old who is struggling to find his place in the world, and a handsome man who is ready for love. Elizabeth Berg's The Year of Pleasuresis about acknowledging the solace found in ordinary things: a warm bath, good food, the beauty of nature, music, friends, and art. "Berg writes with humor and a big heart about resilience, loneliness, love, and hope. And the transcendence that redeems," said Andre Dubus about Durable Goods. And the same could be said about The Year of Pleasures.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The familiar protagonist of Berg's 13th novel (after The Art of Mending) is a Boston widow of several months, 55-year-old Betta Nolan, who fulfills her dying husband's dream of moving out to the Midwest and starting a new life. "It will give me peace to know that what you will do is exactly what we talked about," says John commandingly before dying of liver cancer; Betta, an author of children's books, sells their Beacon Hill brownstone and takes off, buying an oversized Victorian in the small town of Stewart, Ill., 49 miles from Chicago. Lonely, she finds herself tracking down three former college roommates from the late 1960s, Lorraine, Maddy and Susanna, whom she ditched once she met John. The women reappear one by one and help give her the courage to open a shop called What a Woman Wants (it'll sell "all different stuff that women loved. Beautiful things, but unusual too. Like antique birdcages with orchids growing in them"). Meanwhile, she begins to make friends in town, notably with attractive young handyman Matthew and natty oldster Tom Bartlett. Berg is a pro at putting together an affecting saga of interest to women of a certain age, yet here she seems to be writing in her sleep. There is little effort at cohesion-rather, a kind of serendipitous plot that goes every which way and a series of tentative, aborted romances. The impression readers will be left with is of a woman endlessly nurturing and rarely satisfied. Agent, Lisa Bankoff at ICM. 12-city author tour. (Apr. 12) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
As evidenced by this 14th novel (after The Art of Mending), Berg's talents grow richer with each book. Her heroine is Betta Nolan, whose marriage boasts such strength and intimacy that she is left completely bereft at husband John's death. Seeking to begin again and following a dream that she and John had shared to move to the Midwest, Betta impulsively purchases a house in a small town. Each day is difficult, and yet by finding and celebrating the simple pleasures of life, Betta catches hope and begins to heal. Berg's unerring sense of the beauties of daily life bursts forth on every page, from her description of "barns faded to the soft red of tomato soup," through cryptic one-word notes that John has left for Betta to find and unravel, to a green bowl, eggs, and a sparrow. Poignant, intimate, and hopeful, this is a novel to read, treasure, and share. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/04.]-Caroline M. Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The prolific Berg (The Art of Mending, 2004, etc.) champions middle-aged craziness in an impossibly sunny soap opera. Betta Nolan, 55 and a former children's book author, sells her Boston townhouse after her beloved husband John dies of cancer-and sets out for the center of the country to see what happens next. It's not purely whim that draws Betta to the Midwest; she and John had once dreamed of moving to that part of the country. "We had always been charmed by the people we'd met from there, and it seemed the right place to start a new life: exotic, at least to us, but not as difficult as, say, Prague." Her Boston house sells for $1.9 million, so she won't have to take a waitress job to make ends meet, and she eagerly plunks down a ridiculously low sum for a Victorian treasure in Stewart, Ill. There's still the matter of filling up a life, however, and between bouts of grieving, Betta does just that by looking up three old friends from college, befriending a handsome college student with a bitchy, unworthy girlfriend, and opening the store John once suggested she call "What a Woman Wants." Meanwhile, Betta tries to decipher the scrawled notes her psychiatrist husband left behind. The answer to their mystery, like all the other not-so-very complicated roadblocks in the way of Betta's starting over, is expressed in a platitude ("There is love in holding. And there is love in letting go") that only soapy characters could fathom or follow. "We're all just here, blinking in the light like kittens," Betta's friend Maddy confides. "The older I get, the more I see that nothing makes sense but to try to learn true compassion." What a woman wants, Betta discovers, is to have perfect things in aperfect place, shared with perfect-or at least perfectly interesting-friends. "You don't dishonor the one you loved by being happy," Betta learns. Unhappiness, in Berg's world, isn't an option. Author tour
From the Publisher
Praise for Elizabeth Berg

“The day you open this book you will miss all your appointments, because . . . you will read it straight through. . . . Berg’s writing is to literature what Chopin’s études are to music–measured, delicate, and impossible to walk away from until their completion.”
Entertainment Weekly, about Range of Motion

“Lyrical from start to finish . . . Shaped by Berg’s artistic talents, these stories of ordinary people in ordinary situations are anything but ordinary.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, about Ordinary Life

“Truth rings forth clearly from every page. Berg captures the way women think–and especially the way they talk to other women–as well as any writer I can think of.”
The Charlottesville Observer, about Talk Before Sleep

“Berg’s lovely novels examine how some families grasp blindly at the ties that hold them together and some pluck them apart. Mending is no exception.”
Entertainment Weekly, about The Art of Mending

“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, about Talk Before Sleep

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781588364562
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/05/2005
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
41,787
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

I had been right to want to drive to the Midwest, taking only the back roads. Every time my husband, John, and I had taken a trip more than a few miles away, we’d flown, and had endured the increasingly irritating airport protocols. I’d finally begun to wear what amounted to pajamas so that I wouldn’t have to all but strip before security guards who seemed either worrisomely bored or, equally worrisome, inflated with a mirthful self-importance. It was hard to believe that air travel had ever been considered glamorous, when now what most people felt was a seesawing between anxiety and exasperation. “Well, folks, looks like our time has been pushed back again,” the captain would say, and everyone would shake their heads and snap their newspapers and mutter to their neighbor. And if there was unexpected turbulence, a quivering silence fell.

Now, on this road trip, my mind seemed to uncrinkle, to breathe, to present to itself a cure for a disease it had not, until now, known it had. Rather than the back of an airline seat or endless, identical rest stops on the interstate, I saw farmhouses in the middle of protective stands of trees, silos reaching for the sky, barns faded to the soft red of tomato soup. The weather everywhere stayed stubbornly warm, and people seemed edgily grateful—what could this mean, sixty-degree weather in November? I drove through one small town where old people sat on rockers on front porches and kids tore around corners on bikes and young mothers, jackets tied around their waists, proudly pushed babies in strollers.

I passed white wooden churches, red brick schools, stores with names familiar only to the locals, and movie theaters offering a single choice. I saw cats stationed at living room windows, horses switching tails against clouds of gnats, cows in pastures grouped together like gossips. These scenes seemed imbued with a beauty richer than normal; they seemed so perfect as to have been staged. I felt as though I were driving through a museum full of pastoral bas-reliefs, and I took in the details that way, with wonder and appreciation. That was the tolerable part of my new vulnerability, the positive side of feeling my heart had migrated out of my body to hang on my chest like a necklace.

There was an infinite variety of trees, and I felt ashamed to know the names of so few of them. John and I used to talk about how the current phase of the moon as well as the names of trees and flowers and birds—at least the local ones!—should be front and center in people’s brains; maybe such a connection to nature would help to make us more civilized. But I was as guilty as anyone; the only tree I knew beyond pines and willows and birches was the black locust, and that was because I liked the way John had described the blossoms’ scent: like grape lollipops. I passed massive-trunked trees standing powerful and alone, and imagined how in summer their leafy canopy would provide a gigantic circle of shade. I passed a group of reedy saplings bending like ballerinas in the wind. Willow trees dipped their bare branches into pond water like girls testing the temperature with their toes.

I felt a low and distinct kind of relaxation. Time became real. Nature became real: the woods, the sky, the lakes, the high bluffs and low valleys, the acres of spent fields, the muddy riverbanks. Live photos flashed before me: Here, a construction worker eating a sandwich, one foot up on the bumper of his truck. Here, a woman in curlers loading groceries into her car. Here, a child glimpsed through a kitchen window, standing on a stool to reach into a cupboard; there, a beauty operator giving an old lady a perm.

I saw in a way I never had before the beauty and diversity of our earnest labor on the earth, and also our ultimate separateness. This helped my pain metamorphose into something less personal and more universal, something organic and natural. And that helped give me strength. Someone had to die first. It turned out to be John. Nothing more. Nothing less. What fell to me now, what I was driving toward, was the creation of a new kind of life, minus the ongoing influence of what I had loved and depended upon most in the world. In a way, my situation reminded me of a little girl I’d once seen exiting a roller coaster at a state fair, all wide eyes and pale face and shaky knees. When her brother asked if she’d like to ride again, she said, “Not until I’m way readier.” I felt myself trapped in line for a ride I was not nearly ready for, looking back but moving forward in the only direction I could go.

Mile by mile, the country unfurled before me—in bright morning light, throughout golden afternoons, under the pastel-colored skies of evenings. Once, just outside of Cleveland, when the sky was lavender and the clouds pink, I pulled to the side of the freeway to watch until darkness smudged the colors into night. Land rushed up, then fell away; rushed up, then fell away. I became intimately aware of the lay of the land, felt the rise and fall of it in my stomach as I drove up and down steep hills. I deliberately pushed everything out of my head but what was before me. Still, every now and then a quick thrill raced up my spine in the form of a thought: I am my own again. Sorrow that lay pooled inside me gave over to a kind of exhilaration in those moments; the relief was stunning.

Though impermanent. One night, I checked into a motel at around ten o’clock. Next door, I heard a couple making love. Their sounds were sloppy and slightly hysterical—Drunk, I thought. I turned the radio up loud, ran a bath, and while sitting at the edge of the tub unwrapping the absurdly little bar of soap, I felt the weight of my loss move slowly back into me. After I dried off, I sat before the television and marveled at the drivel that passed for entertainment. I turned it off, finally, then sat at the side of the bed and stared out at nothing. I picked up the telephone and dialed my home number. I heard the characteristic tones, then, The number you have reached has been disconnected. I hung up, closed my eyes, and took in a deep breath. Then I knelt at the side of the bed and pushed my face into my hands.





Late in the afternoon of the third day, I pulled over to a frozen-yogurt stand near the center of a small town that looked particularly attractive to me. A tall, early-thirtyish man waited on me. He was beginning to bald already and had a distressing complexion. But his eyes, as though in compensation, were a brilliant blue. “That’ll be a dollar sixty-five,” he said, handing me the raspberry cone I’d ordered. I pulled two dollars from my wallet and handed them to him, then took a lick of the yogurt. “Delicious,” I said, and smiled at him. He smiled back, hesitantly, then fussed with the register for a long while as I watched, first in mild annoyance, then in sympathy, finally in utter fascination. Eventually, the man turned and called to someone in the back room. “Louise?” he said, apparently too softly, for then he called a bit louder, “Louise?”

“WHAT?” she yelled back.

The man straightened the paper hat on his head. “Could you come out and help me?” he asked. “Please?”

Louise came out to the cash register, scowling. She was wearing a maroon sweat suit and was massively overweight. She wore her hair in a high ponytail. It was beautiful hair, thick and auburn-colored; I concentrated on it while she concentrated on me. Finally, I looked at her face. “Hello,” I said.

She jutted her chin at me. “How you doing.” There was mischief in her eyes.

“Was that you yelling back there?” I asked.

She grinned. “Yeah, that was me, whistling while I work.” She jerked her head toward the man. “This goes on all the livelong day.”

“Oh, well,” I said. “That’s all right.”

“Easy for you to say.” She turned to glare at the man, who studied his shoes. Then she fixed the register and stomped off.

“Okay!” the man said. “Says here I owe you thirty-five cents!” He handed me the change.

I thanked him, then, laughing, said, “Though I think you could have figured that out on your own.”

He looked doubtful.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Don’t you think we’re getting way too dependent on these damn machines?”

Now he looked grateful. “Idn’t it?”

I thanked him again and headed for the door. But I turned back before I opened it. “Could you tell me what town this is?”

He pointed to the floor. “This here town where we’re at now?”

“Yes.”

He straightened, made himself taller. “This is Stewart, Illinois, and I’ll tell you what, it’s only forty-nine miles from Chicago. Exactamento. I been here my whole life. It’s a good town, Stewart. Is this what you’re looking for?”

I hesitated, then answered, “Yes.”

As I started to open the door again, I heard him clear his throat and say, “Miss?”

I turned back. He was blushing, but with a kind of borrowed confidence, he said, “Would you like to be on my radio show?”

I tried hard not to let my astonishment show. “You have a radio show?”

“Yes, ma’am, Talk of the Town. I get guests from town on, and we talk. That’s the show.”

I thought of the empty miles I’d driven through to get to this town, the few places of business I’d seen thus far. I didn’t recall anything that looked like it might be—or house—a broadcasting studio. “Where?” I asked.

“Right at WMRZ a few blocks over. It’s above the drugstore. I’ve had Louise on my show—we talked about yogurt: Where has it been and where is it going? Louise liked being on a lot, you can ask her. She got dressed up and everything, got herself a new purse for that show.” He lowered his voice and leaned over the counter to say, “Louise is the one sponsors me. Her bite is way worse than her bark, if you know what I mean.”

I hesitated, then refrained from correcting him. Instead, I said, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.”

“So do you want to be on? I tape every Sunday morning. Six-thirty. You’d have to get up early, but you’re going to church, anyways, just get ready sooner.”

“Well, I . . .”

“You don’t need to answer now,” the man said. “ If you want to do it, just come back and see me here. Or you can call me. My name’s Ed Selwin. My number’s in the book. It’s spelled exactly more or less like it sounds. You can think on it. Just, I figured if you’s moving here, it’d be good to interview you. You being a new person and all.”

“But I . . . did I say I was moving here?”

“Not exactly. I just saw your loaded-up car with out-of-state plates, and then you said this is the town you were looking for . . .”

“I see.”

“And since you’d be a new person here, it’d be interesting to see where you came from and such. Like that. And don’t worry—people get nervous being on the radio, just a natural thing, but I’ll settle you right down.”

“Okay, well . . . I’ll let you know.” I waved goodbye and began licking the quickly melting yogurt. Inside the car, I started the engine, turned on the heat—the weather had finally become seasonally appropriate—and finished eating. I had an odd but familiar feeling inside, a kind of surety without grounding. It was something I often felt as a child, and it drove me to do things very quickly and without regret. I wondered if I should say, Yes, here, this is the place, just like that, and then go in search of somewhere to live. Why not? What had I to lose, really? I was in the middle of the country, as I’d wanted to be. It looked to be a charming little town. And anyway, I wouldn’t mind moving back toward a certain boldness of spirit, a reliance on a kind of luck I’d always enjoyed. I remembered a story I once heard about a couple from a farm in Iowa looking for a place to live in Washington, D.C. They weren’t having any success; everything was incredibly expensive, and to make matters worse, they had three dogs. They became greatly discouraged, and then one day the woman threw up her hands and said, “All right. Let’s just drive ten minutes one way and then turn left. And then drive ten minutes more and turn right. And then ten minutes straight, and if we don’t find something, we’ll give up.” What they drove to was a huge farmhouse just outside the city, and a man was standing outside of it. Feeling more than a little foolish, the couple asked if the man happened to know of anything around for rent. Turned out he had a little house on his property he used for hired hands that was newly vacated. Freshly painted. They could have it for next to nothing if they’d help a bit with chores. And three dogs? No problem. John once said, “Sometimes serendipity is just intention, unmasked.” I think I answered him with some sort of vague Mmm-hmm, right, hidden as I was behind the Globe’s book review. But I’d always remembered it. And now I thought I knew what he’d meant. When you were willing to say what you really wanted, something just might help you along.


From the Hardcover edition.

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