As onetime classmates meet up over the course of a weekend for their fortieth high school reunion, they discover things that will irrevocably affect the rest of their lives. For newly divorced Dorothy, the reunion brings with it the possibility of finally attracting the attention of the class heartthrob. For the ever self-reliant, ever left-out Mary Alice, it’s a chance to reexamine a painful past. For Lester, a veterinarian and widower, it is the hope of talking shop with a fellow vet—or at least that’s what he tells himself. For Candy, the class beauty, it’s the hope of finding friendship before it’s too late. As these and other classmates converge for the reunion dinner, four decades melt away: desires and personalities from their youth reemerge, and new discoveries are made. For so much has happened to them all. And so much can still happen.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.22(w) x 11.70(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels as well as two works of nonfiction. Open House was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year, and Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for an Abby Award. Her bestsellers also include The Year of Pleasures, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, and Dream When You’re Feeling Blue. Berg has been honored by both the Boston Public Library and the Chicago Public Library and is a popular speaker at various venues around the country. She lives near Chicago.
Date of Birth:December 2, 1948
Place of Birth:St. Paul, Minnesota
Education:Attended the University of Minnesota; St. Mary¿s College, A.A.S.
Read an Excerpt
Dorothy Shauman Ledbetter Shauman is standing in front of the bathroom mirror in her black half-slip and black push-up bra, auditioning a look. Her fortieth high school reunion, the last one, is one week away, and she’s trying to decide whether or not to draw a beauty mark above her lip for the occasion. It wouldn’t be entirely false; she does have a mole there, but it’s faint, hard to see. She just wants to enhance what already exists, nothing wrong with that; it’s de rigueur if you’re a woman, and it’s becoming more common in men, too. Wrong as that is. Dorothy would never have anything to do with a man who wore makeup or dyed his hair or carried a purse or wore support hose or cried or did any of those womanly things men are appropriating as though it’s their god-given right. No. She prefers an all-American, red-blooded male who is not a jerk. They’re hard to find, but she holds out hope that she will have some sort of meaningful relationship with one before she’s six feet under.
She regards herself in the mirror, tilts her head this way and that. Yes, a beauty mark would be fun, kind of playful. She pencils in the mark gingerly, then steps back to regard herself. Not bad. Not bad at all. Sexy. Just like she wanted. Helloooo, Marilyn. She pictures Pete Decker looking up from his table full of jocks when she walks into the hotel ballroom and saying, Va va va voom! And then, Dorothy? Dorothy Shauman?
“Uh-huh,” she will say, lightly, musically, and walk right past him. Though she will walk close enough to him for him to smell her perfume. Also new. One hundred and ten smackeroos. She got perfume, not cologne, even though her personal belief is that there is no difference. She’d asked the counter woman about that. She’d leaned in confidentially and said, “Now, come on. Tell me, really. If you were my best friend, would you tell me to get the perfume over the cologne?” And the woman had looked her right in the eye and said, “Yes.” Dorothy was a little miffed, because the woman had acted as though Dorothy had affronted her dignity or questioned her ethics or something. Like the time Dr. Strickland was telling Dorothy to get a certain ($418!!!) blood test and she’d said, “Would you tell your wife to get it?” And Dr. Strickland had drawn himself up and quietly said, “I would.” Dorothy had been all set to give him an affectionate little punch and say, “Oh, come on, now; don’t be so prissy,” but then Dr. Strickland had added, “If she were still alive,” and that had just ruined everything. It wasn’t her fault the woman had died! Dorothy had been going to refuse the test no matter what, but when he said his wife was dead, well, then she had to get it. Those dead people had more power than they thought.
Dorothy has never gone to a high school reunion. She’d been married when they had them before, and who wanted to bring that to a reunion. Now she is divorced, plus she saw that movie about saying yes to life. She steps closer to the mirror and raises her chin so her turkey neck disappears. She’ll hold her head like this when she walks by Pete Decker. Later, when they’re making out in his car, it will be dark, and she won’t have to be so vigilant. Oh, she hopes he drives to the reunion; she happens to know he lives a mere three and a half hours away. She knows his exact address, in fact; and she Google-Earthed him, which was very exciting.
In high school, Pete had a four-on-the-floor, metallic green GTO, and Dorothy always wanted to make out with him in that car. But she never even got to sit in it. She bets he has something like a red Lexus coupe now. And she bets that at the reunion he’ll watch her for a while, then come up to her and say, “Hey, Dots. Want to take a walk?” And she’ll say, all innocent, “Where?” And he’ll get a little flustered and say something like “You know, just a walk, get some air.” She’ll hesitate just for a second, just long enough to make him think she might refuse, and then she’ll shrug prettily before she agrees to accompany him outside. They’ll go right to his car and he’ll open the passenger-side door and raise an eyebrow and she’ll say, “Pete!” like she’s offended at the very notion. But then she’ll get in, will she ever. She likes this part of the fantasy best: She’ll get in, he’ll come around and get in on his side, and then, just before he lunges at her, he’ll look at her with smoke practically coming out of his eyes. And in her eyes, a soft Yes, I know. I, too, have wanted this for years.
Dorothy does plan on being a little mean to Pete at first; she has finally learned it can be a good thing to be mean to men. Apparently they like it; it’s supposed to appeal to their hunting instinct. That’s why she’s going to walk right by him when he first sees her and notices how attractive she is. Considering.
Her daughter, Hilly, is the one who told her about being mean to men. She said you do it just at the beginning and then every so often, just to keep up a level of intrigue, like immunization shots. And it works, too, because when Hilly started doing it, wasn’t she engaged in what seemed like ten minutes! She’s getting married in Costa Rica next month, and Dorothy thinks it’s a wonderful idea, the destination wedding. Thank God Dorothy’s ex will pay for everything. Poor he was not. She supposes he’ll bring his new wife to the wedding, and pander to her every single second. Holding her hand, as though they were teenagers. Bringing her drinks, as though the woman is incapable of doing anything for herself. Staring into her eyes like the secret of the universe is written there. It’s nauseating, the way they behave, anyone would say so. Hilly calls them the Magnets, though she might only do that to offer some kind of support to her mother, who lives alone now and must take out the garbage and figure out whom to call for repairs and check the locks at night and kill centipedes in the basement and everything else. Dorothy suspects the truth is, Hilly actually likes her stepmother. She hasn’t said so directly, but she did say that she’s happy for her dad, and wasn’t that just like nails on a chalkboard. But Dorothy did the noble thing and said yes, she was, too. Uh-huh, yes, he did seem happy now, Dorothy said, and she just wanted to throw up.
Hilly’s fiancé is a doctor. A proctologist, specializing in the wonderful world of buttholes and rectums, but still. Dorothy is working up to asking the question that—come on!—must occur to everyone to ask him: What exactly made you choose this line of work? When Dorothy tried to ask her daughter about it, all Hilly did was get mad. It is true Dorothy could have used a more sensitive approach—what she’d asked Hilly was “Why in the wide, wide world would you ever want to look up people’s heinies all day?” Still, Dorothy doesn’t see why Hilly had to take such offense. Her daughter had said something like perhaps Dorothy should consider the fact that preventing and treating cancer is a pretty noble goal. But that still didn’t answer the question, did it?
Dorothy thinks it was a book her daughter read that taught her about being mean to men. Who knows, if Dorothy had been mean to Pete Decker in high school, they might have gotten married. They went out once—well, not a date technically, but they did spend some time together on the class trip to Washington, D.C., and Dorothy was awfully nice to Pete and then of course that was that, he never called her. But if they had gotten married, they probably would have gotten divorced, and then she wouldn’t be looking forward so much to going to her high school reunion. Apart from her friends Linda Studemann and Judy Holt, she’s really only going to see him. And, to be honest, to show off her recent weight loss. That was the one nice thing about her divorce: During the grief part, before she realized how much better off she was without her husband, she lost twenty-three pounds. She bets she’ll look better than the cheerleaders, and even better than Candy Sullivan, who had been queen of everything. Not that Candy Sullivan is coming. According to Pam Pottsman, who is the contact person for this year’s reunion, Candy came to the five-year reunion and hasn’t come to any since. “Is she dead?” Dorothy asked, ready to offer an impromptu eulogy praising Candy’s good points, even though Candy never gave Dorothy the time of day. But Pam said no, Candy wasn’t dead, apparently she just thought she was too good to come, and then they both started talking about what a snob Candy always was, and she wasn’t even really all that hot. “Did you know she stuffed her bra?” Pam said, and Dorothy said, “Really?” and felt that delicious rush, and Pam said, “Yup, I sat across from her in Mr. Simon’s psychology class and I saw Kleenex coming out of the top of her blouse one day and I whispered to her that it was showing and she got all embarrassed and stuffed it back in and wouldn’t look at me.”
“But wait a minute,” Dorothy said. “I saw her naked in gym class, and she didn’t need any Kleenex.”
“Senior. And she did not need Kleenex.”
“Well, that psychology class was sophomore year,” Pam said, and she sounded a little disappointed that Candy Sullivan had outgrown her need for bra stuffing. But then she told Dorothy how a lot more people were coming this year than ever before, probably because it was the last reunion their class was going to have; and she named several of their classmates who had signed up. Dorothy thinks it will be fun to see poor Mary Alice Mayhew, who is coming for her very first reunion, just as Dorothy is. Though there the similarity ends, thank you very much. Such a little mouse Mary Alice was, walking down the hall and looking at the floor, all hunched over her schoolbooks. She wore awful plaid dresses, and she never wore nylons, just thin white ankle socks, not even kneesocks. And loafers that were not Weejuns, you could tell. From a mile away, you could tell. Poor thing. And wait, didn’t she put pennies in them? There’s always one of them, and in their school, it was Mary Alice Mayhew.
Oh, and Lester Hessenpfeffer, who was screwed the moment he was christened. Lester’s uncle, who was present at his birth, had just changed his own last name to Hess, and he suggested that Lester’s father do the same for the sake of his newborn son. Lester’s father reportedly screamed, “Change our name! Change our name? Why should we change our name? Let the rest of the world change their names!” Lester had told that story once when someone teased him about his name. You had to give Lester this: he was always an affable guy who didn’t ever seem to take things personally.
Poor Lester. Never dated. He had such a cute face, but he was too much of a brain, and too sensitive. He probably ended up in computers. Maybe he got rich, like that homely Microsoft guy. And if so, you can bet your boots that Dorothy will be saying hello to him, too.
If Mary Alice Mayhew really comes to the reunion, Dorothy will make a point of being nice to her. Yes she will. She’ll buy her a drink; oh, what a hoot to think of buying Mary Alice Mayhew a drink. So odd to think that they’re old enough to drink now. Mary Alice had silver cat-eye glasses with rhinestones on them and her hair always looked like she’d taken the rollers out and not brushed it. Dorothy has heard plenty of stories about how ugly ducklings come to their high school reunions as swans, but she’d bet money that Mary Alice looks much the same, only with wrinkles. She wouldn’t be the Botox type. Dorothy’s position on Botox is Thank God. Who cares if you can’t move your eyebrows around like caterpillars on a plate?
“Is Pete Decker coming?” Dorothy asked Pam.
“And his wife, too?”
“He only registered himself. You know Pete. Oh, I can hardly wait to see him again. What a dreamboat he was.”
“Oh, did you think so?” Dorothy studied her nails casually, as though she and Pam were talking in person. If you wanted to sound a certain way, even on the telephone, it was good to act a certain way—the feeling crept into your voice. You were supposed to smile when you were talking on the phone if you wanted to sound friendly. A lot of the people who made recordings for telephone prompts seemed to do that, though such recordings always make Dorothy want to bang the phone against the wall until the wires fall out.
“I thought Pete Decker was the most handsome boy in the school!” Pam said. “Didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. I guess a lot of people found him attractive.” Dorothy sniffed then, and changed the subject. No need for Pam to know of Dorothy’s designs on Pete; Pam was quicker than Twitter at spreading things around.
Dorothy turns and views herself from the side: not bad. The bra, bought yesterday on her final stop for putting together a killer outfit, is doing what it promised; her breasts are hiked up and perky, rather than hanging down so low they appear to be engaging in conversation with her belly button. Eighty-five dollars for a bra! At least it’s French. Dorothy always likes it when things are French. In the dressing room, she’d sniffed the bra to see if it smelled like Chanel or something, but no, it smelled like rubber. Not for long. Dorothy will have everything perfumed when she goes to that reunion, even her you-know-what. But she’ll have to remember to pat it on down there; last time she sprayed, she gave herself a urinary tract infection and, oh, does she hate cranberry juice.
She steps back from the mirror, then leans in to darken the beauty mark. Perfect. She should take a picture of herself to remember to do it just like this on Saturday night. They’re having a Saturday night dinner followed by a dance, complete with a DJ who’s supposed to be really good and not tacky, and then there’s a Sunday brunch. Two times for a final try at glory.
Dorothy’s stomach growls, and she puts her hand over it and says aloud, “No.”
Reading Group Guide
1. Many people say they're going to a reunion for one reason, when it's really for another. Why do you think most people attend reunions?
2. Berg portrays a diverse group of high school classmates in her novel. Did you have a favorite character before the reunion? After?
3. Much of what we learn about Berg’s characters comes from stories told by others. Which of the characters seems best known by his or her classmates? Which classmate are people most wrong about?
4. Which characters were actually the happiest in high school? Does this match or contradict the perceptions of others?
5. In your opinion, is nostalgia generally a good or a bad thing? Other than reunions, what are some examples of things that happen in our lives that lead us to think, sometimes obsessively, about the past?
6. Dorothy Shauman is obsessed with seducing her high school crush, Pete Decker, at the reunion. She finds the perfect outfit, confers with her friends on strategy, and even sends herself flowers at the reunion hotel. But things don’t go as planned with Pete come reunion night. Why do you think Dorothy strikes out with Pete?
7. In high school, people often go to great lengths to disguise their "real selves." Which of the characters did this in high school, and which of them are still doing it as the novel opens? What do you think it is that allows us to be, and to accept, our most authentic selves?
8. Pete and Candy were the king and queen of high school. But no matter what the others think of them, their lives post-high school have not always gone according to plan. Discuss Pete and Candy and how differently they seem to have handled their popularity – both during and after high school.
9. Mary Alice might not have been popular in high school, but it didn’t seem to bother her. So why are the people in her life (her older sister and her elderly neighbor, Einer) so worried about her going to her reunion?
10. Why was Lester initially so hesitant to go to his reunion? Why do you think he changed his mind? Was it just the pressure from Jeanine, or something more?
11. Many of the characters in the novel assume, going into the reunion, that their classmates will be exactly as they remembered them. Of course that’s not the case. Which of Berg’s characters has changed the least since high school? The most? Do you think people really change?
12. Towards the end of the reunion, Pam Pottsman organizes an activity where classmates gather around and tell the truth about a variety of issues. Were you surprised by the people who participated, and the stories they shared? Why or why not? What would you share if you played this game with your high school classmates?
13. When you look back on your own high school days, what do you remember about yourself, and your fellow classmates? Equipped with the knowledge and experience you have now, if you could do high school over again, what would you do differently?
14. Have you been to your high school reunions? If you haven’t, talk about why you decided not to go. If you have, what was your experience like? Discuss.
When I wrote my latest novel, Once Upon a Time, There Was You, I included a scene of two middle-aged women, old friends, taking their clothes off so each could inspect the other’s body. This was ostensibly so that one of the women could be reassured that the man who just dumped her did not do so because of her body. Alas, the "consolation" she receives is her friend saying, "Oh, hon. This is not the time of our bodies."
I suppose this could be seen as sad. But maybe it's not. Maybe along with all the trials and tribulations of getting older, comes a kind of compensation that makes it all worth while. I'm not talking about wisdom, here, although I think that comes, too, albeit slowly, especially in some people. (People like me, if you must know.) I'm not talking about grandchildren, either, although—oh, well, don't even get me started on grandchildren. That would be a whole other essay. That would be a whole other book.
What I'm talking about is something I learned after having written The Last Time I Saw You. I wrote a novel about attending a high school reunion without ever having attended a high school reunion. After the book came out, many people thought I'd gone to a reunion and taken a lot of notes, and eavesdropped on a lot of converstations. They said --and wrote, on book review sites--that I did this, and they said with great authority that I did this. Well. I went out on tour and revealed the truth: I had never been to a high school reuinion, unless you call the one my military-base high school in Germany had—in San Antonio, Texas. That reunion included far more than one year, and I didn’t know a lot of the people who came because the population was ever shifting. But I never attended the typical high school reunion, where the class of X gets together, and nearly all the people know each other, and were together for four years. So. There I am on tour, talking proudly about how I never went to a reuinion and I guess I fooled you! But a question kept coming up at a lot of the readings I did, and it was this: Why were the characters in the book stopping at the fortieth reunion? Why was that one the last one? I explained that it had to be the last, so it would compel people who might not otherwise come, to show up—people like Lester, the shy veterinarian, and Mary Alice, the class nerd. And also, I explained, I thought that after the 40th, people would have had enough. But I was so wrong. Time after time, people told me they went to their 45th reunion, their 50th and beyond. They told me that the more years that had passed since graduation, the better the reuinons were. One woman said, "You know, at my twentieth reuinion, it was all about competition. At my 40th, it was all about friendship." And I inferred from all the people who told me stories about reunions long after the 40th, that those reunions are all about kindness to one other, and a gratitude at being able to see each other again that deepens every year. In this time of giving thanks, I gratefully acknowledge that what I learned makes me happy to be growing older. Tell me how else that might happen!