Until the Real Thing Comes Along by Elizabeth Berg, Paula Parker
What do you do when your life isn't living up to your dreams? When the man you love is unavailable, and yet you long for a family, a home? What is the cost of compromising until the real thing comes along? Reading Elizabeth Berg is like having a friend sit down and talk with you about the deepest truths and most perplexing issues in life, and in this exquisite new novel the bestselling author of Talk Before Sleep and The Pull of the Moon once again gives us superb fiction about a passionate woman who solves life's problems in a way that is far from traditional, but close to the wise dictums of the heart. Patty Ann Murphy says she's "Ms. Runner-Up" in life. Rarely the bridesmaid, never mind the bride, Patty sells houses for a living (well, she's sold one house so far), longs to be married and have a family, but is irresistibly drawn to the wrong man. Ethan seems perfect for Pattyhandsome, generous, and sensitivebut he's hopelessly unavailable. Patty's frustration leads her to feelings she doesn't admirejealousy of her beautiful best friend, Elaine, for instance, about whom she says, "Find me one woman who doesn't withhold just a bit from another woman who looks like that." She's also worried about her mother, with whom she's very close but who is beginning to act strangely. Patty longs more and more for the consolation of loving and being loved, but for the moment feels she must content herself with waitinguntil she can wait no more. Andre Dubus said about Elizabeth Berg's Durable Goods, "Elizabeth Berg writes with humor and a big heart about resilience, loneliness, love and hope. And thetranscendence that redeems." And the same will be said about Until the Real Thing Comes Along.
Elizabeth Berg’s novels Open House, The Pull of the Moon, Range of Motion, What We Keep, Never Change, and Until the Real Thing Comes Along were bestsellers. Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year. Talk Before Sleep was an ABBY finalist and a New York Times bestseller. In 1997, Berg won the NEBA Award in fiction, and in 2000 her novel Open House was named an Oprah’s Book Club selection. She lives in Chicago.
Date of Birth:
December 2, 1948
Place of Birth:
St. Paul, Minnesota
Attended the University of Minnesota; St. Mary¿s College, A.A.S.
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.
1. Questions for Discussion In the prologue Patty describes her "house game, " a game about choice and commitment that reveals the "characteristic" Patty likes most about herself [page 3]. What is this characteristic? Is it the characteristic that you admire most about Patty?
2. How is Patty's work as a real estate agent related to the "house game" she describes? Why is she such a "lousy" [page 16] real estate agent? What significance do houses have for Patty? For her clients? For her family?
3. The novel records Patty's glimpses into others' relationships--her parents' relationship, Artie and Muriel Berkenheimer's relationship. How do these relationships serve as models for Patty? In what ways do these relationships exceed her expectations? In what ways do they fall short?
4. As Patty describes her parents' marriage, she insists that "everything they have, I want" [page 46]. Still, she's surprisingly unaware of the details of their courtship and life together. She didn't know that they had fallen in love at first sight [page 44]. She hadn't heard that they never had a honeymoon [page 152]. Does this lack of awareness surprise you? Why? Why not?
5. Is Patty similarly unaware of events in the lives of her dearest friends? Why? Why not?
6. Although intimacy with her dearest friends and family members seems, at times, to be a real struggle for Patty, she is surprisingly intimate with her real estate clients, neighbors, and her manicurist. Artie Berkenheimer invites Patty to use his "breast glasses" [page 84],Sophia predicts Patty's pregnancy [page 118], and Amber offers friendship as well as advice [page 187]. What makes Patty so successful at establishing intimacy in these unexpected moments?
7. Patty admits that "sometimes it's hard to be [Elaine's] friend. A lot its hard to be her friend" [page 29]. Why is it hard? Do you blame Patty or Elaine for the rifts in their friendship? How satisfying is the friendship they offer to one another? What are the barriers to their friendship? Are these barriers surmountable?
8. Ethan and Elaine are united in encouraging Patty to pursue her relationship with Mark. Ethan encourages Patty to "just try" to make the relationship work [page 56], while Elaine insists that Mark is "the best thing" to happen to Patty in a long while [page 60]. Does Patty "try" to make the relationship work? Do you sympathize with Ethan and Elaine's insistence that Patty "try" harder? Or do you sympathize with Patty? Why?
9. Patty admits that she had never known the "real" Ethan during their engagement. She "could get close, but not there" [page 11]. Does she ever know the "real" Ethan? Does she ever feel that Ethan knows her "real" self?
10. Patty and Ethan both have certain hopes and expectations about the relationship a straight woman can have with a gay man. At what moments do these hopes or expectations converge? At what moments are they clearly in conflict? Is Patty fair to Ethan? Is Ethan fair to Patty?
11. Ethan insists that Patty's behavior during the pregnancy is "definitely" [page 170] his business. Is it? What claims does he have on her behavior? What control should he be able to exert over Patty's life? Over their daughter's life?
12. In a disturbingly frank conversation, Amber tells Patty that she feels Ethan is "running away from something" [page 186] by moving to Minneapolis. Although Patty dismisses Amber's comment, she later questions Ethan about his motives [page 192]. What are Ethan's motives for moving? What are Patty's motives?
13. Patty insists that she wants a conventional home. She says, "I thought all you needed was a husband, a house, children, and a decent oven, and you could be happy" [page 50]. However, the life she creates for herself is anything but conventional. How do her parents and friends respond? Are you surprised by Patty's choices? Are you surprised by others' responses? Why? Why not?
14. Amber offers Patty a firm and difficult directive--"Be careful with your heart, kid" [page 187]. Is this possible for Patty? For any woman? What are the risks of failing to follow Amber's directive? What are the risks of succeeding?
15. When Patty's father tells Patty of her mother's Alzheimer's disease, she realizes that she had known all along. When did you know? Why didn't Patty acknowledge what she knew?
16. As Patty's pregnancy advances, she becomes increasingly aware of human mortality. Artie Berkenheimer acknowledges his cancer. Patty's mother suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Ethan's friends struggle with AIDS. How does this overwhelming awareness of disease and death impact Patty's experience of pregnancy? How does it shape the expectations she has of relationships?
17. In the early paragraphs of the novel, Patty distinguishes between what is imaginary and what is true. Although she acknowledges that she has a rich imagination, she admits that "what I never imagined was the truth" [page 8]. How powerful is imagination? What are the limits of imagination?
18. The novel's concluding image, "the creak of the rocker, the luscious fact of my sleeping daughter . . ." [page 240], is extraordinarily reminiscent of an earlier, imagined scene, "Here I am in a little bedroom in my little cottage . . ." [page 16]. In this way, the novel demands that we compare the real world Patty has built for herself with the imaginary world she had envisioned. How do these worlds--imaginary, real--compare?
19. Why is the novel titled Until the Real Thing Comes Along? What is the "real thing"? Does the "real thing, " in fact, "come along"? Does Patty's definition of the "real thing" change over the course of the novel? Does yours?
20. Patty imagines that God's definition of "human beings" is that "they are supposed to make what they want out of what they are given" [page 240]. Is this a definition with which you agree? How successful a human being is Patty?
Q:In an early moment of Until the Real Thing Comes Along, Patty identifies a similarity between artistry and motherhood. How similar–or different–have these pursuits been in your experience?
EB:The similarity is, I guess, obvious. Despite our desire to control them, children and books turn out to be what they have to be, namely, themselves. Also, they–both children and books–are what live on after you, hopefully. I do think that there's an art form to parenting, and I have nothing but admiration for those who do it well. I think it's harder–much harder–to be a good parent than to write a book.
Q:Once characters start leading their own lives, do you ever want to make them behave as you might make a child behave?
EB:I can't really do that and be true to the way I write. I have to let characters develop in a way that's rather apart from me, or at least from my consciousness. I have to let them go in directions they dictate. And I'm always interested in them, even when they're "bad." It's kind of like coming upon someone in a store who is behaving terribly. You may disapprove of the behavior, but it's so interesting you want to stand there and watch. I don't feel compelled to interfere with my characters' actions. I let them go because I trust that where they'll bring me is the place the book needs to be.
Q:Does writing–like mothering–change with its object? Is your experience of writing different with each novel?
EB:Some aspects of writing are always the same. Each time, I start with a vague idea and then, through the writing of the thing, realize what it isthat I'm really trying to get at, to say. With every novel, I learn things about myself as well as the world at large. There are differences, too, of course. Some books are more difficult to write than others. Talk Before Sleep was hard because I'd lost a good friend to breast cancer and writing the book brought back some pretty painful memories (though the book was very much fictionalized). Durable Goods was hard because my mission was so important to me–that of bringing compassion to a character for whom a lot of people might not have much sympathy.
Q:What was unique to your experience of writing Until the Real Thing Comes Along?
EB:This novel was harder to write because it was so foreign to my own experience. I got married at twenty-five and had children right away, so I didn't have the worry that I would never get to have children. I do understand baby lust, though–I'm one of those people who are drawn to babies like magnets to iron–in stores, in restaurants, in parks. . . . Like Patty, I prefer the company of children. But baby lust wasn't the only thing that inspired the writing of this novel. What I care most about was the notion of coming to terms with what we get versus what we want. And that's the lesson Patty learns. She may not have gotten everything she wanted, but what she did get is enough. I think it's a real gift to be able to say that what's in your life is enough. It seems most of us are always wanting more.
Q:When you began to write did you know that it would be a baby that would "come along" for Patty?
EB:I wasn't exactly sure what would happen. I did want to write about a delivery, though.
Q:You write about Patty's delivery with real sympathy and humor and insight–just as you write about so many vital moments in women's lives. Is it your intent to address these moments systematically?
EB:It's not at all that contrived. It's been said about me many times that I deal with "the real issues in women's lives." The first time I heard that, I thought, Well, maybe that's true. Then, when I looked back at the books I'd written thus far, I thought, Huh. I guess it is true. I focus on women and their relationships in large part because I find women so interesting. And because we continue to get short shrift in so many ways, I'm glad to be part of something that draws attention to us. I'm really thrilled, too (honestly!), by the men who come to my readings or write me letters saying that my books help them understand their women, or those men who say they simply enjoy my work for its own sake.
Q:One twist of character that makes Patty so interesting a woman is that despite her longing for a "husband, a house, children, and a decent oven," she fearlessly embraces her relationship with Ethan. Were you surprised by her decision?
EB:Well, she's a stubborn woman, isn't she? No, I wasn't surprised by that decision. She says right off the bat that she is intractably in love with Ethan, despite everything. She wants to have a baby, and live in a home with the man she loves. The fact that he's gay . . . well, maybe they'll be able to work that out.
Q:Doesn't even Patty's career have a stay-at-home element to it?
EB:Yes, her longing, for a home is part of her character. She plays the house game; she sells real estate. Her fixation with houses is just another side of her domesticity. This is a woman who really cherishes the idea of someone caring for a house and a family.
Q:Haven't houses been important in many of your novels?
EB:Definitely. That's probably because they're so important to me. After all, you can't leave yourself entirely behind when you write–you show up in all of your work, one way or another. My house is my refuge. It's the place where I keep the things that I find beautiful or meaningful–even sacred. Things that are comforting and things that are powerful. Spiritual things–coins for the I Ching and fetish stones. I have rocks on window ledges, seashells in the bathroom. I have quilts on the wall and other forms of art that I just love–a painting of a woman looking out of a window, a print that was used to make the jacket for the hardcover edition of Talk Before Sleep. I like clocks a lot, like their ticking sounds, and I have a few of those. There are books everywhere, and places to read everywhere. My favorite place to read is a chaise lounge that is situated by a window where I can watch birds come to my feeder. I like my house to feel like a place where I can just lie back and say, Ahhhhh, I'm home. I like a house to look orderly–I can't stand messes–clothes thrown on the floor, stacks of old newspapers, unmade beds just bug me. I'm not really a terrific housekeeper–you wouldn't want to look behind furniture or in the back of my refrigerator. But I like there to be an appearance of order.
Q:Is your feeling about your house complicated by the fact that you work there?
EB:Oh, no. I like to work in my house. I like to move between writing and domestic details. Knead the bread, write a few pages. Put in a load of wash, write some more. Make a tuna sandwich and eat it while I read what I wrote. I do have a shed in my backyard where I write in a very focused way–no distractions out there.
Q:Do you ever play the "house game"?
EB:All the time. Unlike Patty, though, I get pissed off if I find another house I like a lot better than the one I chose.
Q:Patty suggests that the "house game" reveals the characteristic that she likes most about herself. Is this the characteristic that you most admire in her?
EB:Well, I admire people who are loyal, but I think there is a lot of frustration in seeing someone cling so hard to something that is just never going to work. So, no, I wouldn't say that it's the characteristic I most admire.
Q:For a moment it seems that Patty won't have to give up her love for Ethan. For a moment Ethan thinks that he "might try to act a little . . . straight." Did you ever think he would succeed?
EB:Absolutely not. No. He was just overwrought because so many of his friends were dying. He alludes to that when he talks about all the funerals he's been to, the weight of deciding what to do with all his friends' things. . . . He just wants away from that. There is the fact that he and Patty were once lovers, as Patty is constantly reminding him. Still, he knows he's not straight and never will be. Apart from that, I think there's a lot of excitement around a pregnancy. Two of you are on a pretty amazing ride. I think what Ethan wants is to lose himself in that, at least for a while.
Q:What made you think to investigate a relationship between a straight woman and a gay man?
EB:Part of the reason is that I had that experience. In college, I was madly in love with a boy who didn't admit to his homosexuality for a long time. He finally came out to me one night when I was over at his apartment for dinner. He had moved on to another girlfriend by then, so it wasn't as devastating for me as Ethan's coming out to Patty was. At that point, we were just good friends, and I was actually very glad for him that he could finally tell the truth about something that caused him such anguish. I felt sorry for his girlfriend, even though I was still mad at her for taking him away from me. The character of Ethan was very much modeled on that boyfriend, who was a study in elegance. What a wardrobe that guy had! What style! We remained good friends until he died recently. I miss him.
Q:Until the Real Thing Comes Along investigates many serious themes. Patty, though, seems to resist the difficulties that surround her–not only Ethan's sorrow, but also her mother's Alzheimer's disease. Is this a defense?
EB:Not a conscious one. I think we all resist such hard things as a diagnosis of serious illness. We find it very difficult to bear that kind of information, so we disguise it for as long as we can. If you admit to a problem, you'll have to deal with it. And you may feel unprepared to deal with it for a long time.
Q:Was it difficult for you to write about Alzheimer's disease–a disease that destroys an individual's ability to use language?
EB:I drew from the knowledge I gained working as a nurse to patients who had various kinds of senility. I know what it's like to be in a conversation where there's an eerie feeling that something is a little bit off. It's very seductive, in a way–I mean, you're having a normal conversation (even the most profoundly confused patients can sometimes say things that make a lot of sense) and then all of a sudden it's crazy talk. And yet sometimes you can still feel right with them. As though you've been led into this fog with them, as though you're standing there together, holding hands. And there are some people who, in their senility, are sort of normal but for the fact they can't remember anything. I had one patient, years ago, whom I cared for for several days in a row. Each day, I would wake her up and she would see the flowers beside her bed and she would say, "Oh, did someone send me flowers?" And she'd be so happy. She was a gentle woman, continually delighted. I used to think, well, if I have to be senile, let me be like that.
Q:Until the Real Thing Comes Along investigates the complexities of intimacy. How is it that Patty establishes intimacy so effectively in unexpected moments–with her clients and manicurist–but struggles to be intimate with her dearest friends and family members? EB:That's part of her character. And a characteristic she shares with a lot of people. They say that they can't find someone with whom to be intimate, but it's almost as if they don't really want to. You begin to wonder if they really want a relationship. They fulfill their need for intimacy in different ways. Some may have an ability to be intimate up to a point, but not beyond. Just like some people can perform so beautifully in front of a large crowd, but they're shy one on one. Of course, characters don't always reveal themselves to me. If I were to know Patty as a real person, that's something I would wonder about. She says she really wants this, but where's the evidence? She stays in love with a gay man. She turns down perfectly reasonable suitors. She meets her needs for intimacy in other ways.
Q:Patty is concerned not only with intimacy but also with privacy. She worries, for instance, about the headlines that might be written about her most private concerns and posted on women's refrigerators across the country. Are women watching other women's lives that carefully?
EB:People are watching other people's lives. It may be that women are the most careful observers, that they watch more intently than men do. But is watching enough? It is a mission for me to break down the barriers between the public and the private because I think it makes for terrible loneliness when we hold these intimate concerns to ourselves. If we could admit things to each other, if we could say them, wouldn't we lead more satisfying lives? For instance, I don't like parties, but I would go to parties if there were a corner where individuals were revealing their deepest truths. I'd be right there. It's superficial chatter that I can't do.
Q:Doesn't that sound just like Patty?
EB:Yes. And I guess that's what I always go for in my books, a kind of deep intimacy. I like when the Berkenheimers get stoned and get really honest. In my own life, what I prize most and aspire to are intimate and honest relationships. That's reflected in my work.
Q:In your novels, such relationships occur most often between women. Do you think women are better at that kind of intimacy?
EB:I've had this discussion so many times! I was once complaining about a man to a really good woman friend of mine who's very wise. She said, "Oh, honey, you can't ask men for that kind of thing; they don't have it in them. They're wired differently than we are. For some of the things you want, you need to ask another woman." This is a woman who's been married a long time, by the way. I think she's right. I think men and women are very different, and it makes for problems when we ask each other for things we simply can't provide. Women are talkers and processors, pretty thorough and careful. Maybe we're naturally better at intimacy. On the other hand, a lot of times I think I should lighten up and watch more football.
Q:What is the "real thing"?
EB:For me, the "real thing" is whatever it is that makes you feel you can stop looking, now. You feel a sense of satisfaction even if the thing isn't perfect. (And let's face it, nothing is ever perfect.) You feel at home, in the most profound sense of the word.
Q:Is that what you hoped your reader would understand by your title?
EB:Actually, I changed the title. It was going to be called Ms. Runner-Up, and then it was going to be called Life on Earth. But when the book was optioned for film by Goldie Hawn, the screenwriter called it Until the Real Thing Comes Along. I liked that title, so I used it, too.
Q:Do you often have title troubles?
EB:Well, yeah. I come up with titles that my agent and editor don't like. For example, Durable Goods was supposed to be The King of Wands, after a taro card that features a character who appears very tough but is in fact quite vulnerable. Range of Motion I wanted to call Telling Songs. In that novel, the husband and wife sing to each other every night. Their songs began as a joke but became very meaningful, became a way for expressing the richness in their lives. The novel that's coming out next summer will be called Open House, but I wanted to call it The Hotel Meatloaf. Now, what's wrong with that title? [Laughs] Wouldn't you pick up a book called The Hotel Meatloaf? Of course you would. Especially if it came with a scratch 'n' sniff sticker that smelled like meatloaf, like I had wanted. I also wanted the moon on the jacket of The Pull of the Moon to glow in the dark. It's up to my agent and my editor to save me from my own tackiness, I guess.
Q:Do you have trouble with endings?
EB:Never. I love writing endings. Sometimes I'll know the last line or the last scene of a novel long before I'm finished with it. I've written the last page of the novel I'm working on right now even though I'm still a good fifty pages from the end. I already know what I'm moving toward.
Q:Do you ever anticipate that your readers might say, "Please just write a few more chapters"? Have you ever changed the ending of a novel to satisfy readers' expectations?
EB:I don't think about anyone when I write a book. I can't. It would freeze me up. I write for myself. Then when the book is done, I worry about everyone else. I've never significantly changed an ending, and any changes I have made have to do with what I think, not with what I think others will think. When I finish a novel, I always feel satisfied that it's ended where it should end. In Until the Real Thing Comes Along, Patty hasn't found a marriage, but she has come to understand that what she has will do. The last line is "Or by themselves." She's speaking about the roses that look beautiful next to each other, but also alone. That's meant to signal her acceptance of her single state: It's viable. It's fine. I have had readers ask about sequels. Many readers have wanted a sequel to The Pull of the Moon because they want to know what happens to the husband. Interestingly, I had written a letter from him to his wife that I thought I might include as an epilogue. I didn't. But my readers always ask, "What did he say?" Readers have also wondered if I'm going to write a sequel for Durable Goods and Joy School. I never thought I would, but, lately, I've been thinking about it. Still, a sequel is never a matter of dissatisfaction with an ending.
Q:Are you influenced by your readers' responses?
EB:I'm affected by them, but not influenced in my writing. I have to write what I want to write, not what I think people want to hear. It's so mysterious, what people want, anyway. It seems to me that if you try to second guess what people want, you'd only be wrong. And even if you weren't, if you don't write from a place of personal truth, if you don't write to please yourself, what's the point in writing? A lot of my work deals with serious subjects, and I've been deeply moved by the stories that women have told me about the friends they've lost or the challenges they've faced that my novels have recalled. I get a great deal of satisfaction from knowing I've pleased readers, and I suffer when I feel I've disappointed them. But in the end, always, I have to write for myself.
Q:What is the most surprising responseyou've ever received?
EB:Overwhelmingly, the responses that I get are positive. However, I once received, in the mail, a mangled tape of Talk Before Sleep with a letter in which a woman said she'd had no idea that there were lesbians in the book and that she was furious. So, she had returned the book to me, returned that "filth" to me.
Q:How do you deal with responses like that?
EB:Her response was so vitriolic that it was disturbing. I wanted to talk with her, but she hadn't left a number. It was, of course, an unusual response. Perhaps the real question is, How do I deal with a lousy review? Happily, I haven't gotten a whole lot of bad reviews. Still, when I do, I think there's a good lesson to learn. I think it's helpful to read bad reviews because it keeps you rooted in the real world. There's something about taking the bad with the good that's good for the soul. I don't mind them so much unless they're completely off. If the reviewer didn't understand what I was trying to do at all, or if my intent is misinterpreted, then I get a bit discouraged. I've learned, though, at this point, that reviews don't make a whole lot of difference to people outside of the industry. A lot of critics had a problem with The Pull of the Moon. They found the central character too self-involved. And, yet, it is, next to Talk Before Sleep, my most popular book.
Q:What advice would you give to beginning writers?
EB:To trust the process. Writers are born, I think, not taught. You can hone your technique, but what makes a writer is a certain sensibility. You simply have it and it doesn't go away. This is why I advise people not to despair when they encounter what is known as "writer's block." There are seaasons. There are times when you're rich inside and times when you're poor inside. During the poor times, you have to learn to trust the process. You have to learn over and over again the lesson of just waiting. It returns.
Q:Do you turn to other writers for support in your own writing?
EB:I do have a writers' group. It's a wonderful thing. There are six of us. We meet weekly. It offers camaraderie. For someone who writes for a living and talks to herself a little too often, it's good to have others' responses. It's also motivating. We bring up to ten pages each. You don't want to arrive without your ten pages. And it's a good sounding board. When you establish a group of individuals you trust and admire–and it takes a while to build up the trust–it becomes a wonderful place to try things out, to really take risks. It gives you an opportunity to see if your work speaks to other people. It gives you a chance to hear as you read aloud–and we do read aloud–if your work does what you intended. You hear things when you read aloud that you simply don't hear in your head–repetitions of words, references that are unclear, concepts that you understood when you wrote them but not when you read them.
Q:How do you revise?
EB:I revise, but not extensively. I think a lot about what I'm going to do before I do it. I think in the shower and when I'm walking. There is a point when a book begins writing itself. It's almost as though I see a scene and then write what I saw. I hear lines of dialogue. That's when I know it's okay–when it's writing itself. It's like a flower opening. It opens by itself. It's unexpected and, oftentimes, surprising.
Q:What is your greatest success as a writer?
EB:Of every novel I've written, someone has said, "I've read all your books and this is my favorite." Every one is the favorite of someone. I'm really thrilled by that.
Q:Is there an overarching theme to your writing?
EB:I have often said that writers write about the same thing over and over. Certainly, I do. Not that books aren't about different subjects. Still, there are themes that surface again and again. I guess, for me, it's always the theme of the extraordinary in the ordinary. That, and life-affirming messages.
Q:What are you working on now?
EB:A novel called The Courtship of Falcons, which is about a fifty-something-year-old visiting nurse taking care of a dying patient. He's a man she had a terrific crush on in high school, when he was super-stud and she was, as she describes it, the ugly girl who "everybody liked and nobody wanted to hang out with.
Until the Real Thing Comes Along 3.2 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
This by far is my favorite book!! I absolutely loved it!!!
More than 1 year ago
I love Elizabeth Berg and this novel certainly lives up to the highest expectations. It's hilarious and real. It will fill your heart while it entertains your brain.
More than 1 year ago
Although I love Elizabeth Berg's writing, this was not one of her better efforts. The story and the characters were pretty weak and I found I didn't really care what happened to them in their neurotic little worlds.
More than 1 year ago
This book was easy to read, but I found the characters to be a little weak. The story was okay, I expected a little more detail, and things just happend, for me at least, a little too quickly. I wanted Patty to go through a little more than she did.
More than 1 year ago
This novel was... okay. The main character truly annoyed me. She has this amazing fantasy life she lives in... and she doesn't even realize it's all in her head. Her constant thoughts of babies are full of whimsy & the fantasy of what it's like to have a child... she's the perfect parent w/ the perfect children in the perfect home. Nice fantasies, but she seems to have no idea that THAT is not reality. She's selfish & superficial. It was nice when Patty & her friend Elaine admitted this... but she still remained selfish. She loves her mother so much, but never shows that she is at all concerned about her strange behavior. Her gay guy Ethan is unrealistic. I kept reading to see if Patty would have some sort of epiphany, but no... she had none. My favorite chapter is the last one... where she seems to be happy for her friends, and herself instead of PO'd, jealous, and living in a fantasy world. It IS a fast read... and an ok story - yet I got nothing from this book... no real feelings of... "Oh, I can relate" to any of the characters. Much of a surface book... I didn't find much depth.
More than 1 year ago
The reader has the delicious opportunity to share the main character's 'unimportant' inner thoughts... silly little thoughts about everyday things that will make you giggle inside. It was a lot of fun.
More than 1 year ago
THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN WELL MAKING IT AN EASY READ. I LOVED THE HUMOR AND STRONG FAMILY TIES EMPHASIZED IN BOOK. MY BOOK GROUP IS PLANNING TO READ WHAT WE KEEP BY BERG. I CAN'T WAIT.
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I especially liked Patty's character because it reminded me of myself- always going for the "nice guy"(who ends up being the wrong guy). She also reminded me of my friends- I want it. I want it now. I can have it regardless if everyone else is wanting the same thing.It reminds me so much of a point I covered in my book.