What We Keep: A Novel

What We Keep: A Novel

by Elizabeth Berg

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“BERG KNOWS THE HEARTS OF HER CHARACTERS INTIMATELY, showing them with compassion, humor, and an illuminating generosity.”
–The Seattle Times

“BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN . . . [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. . . . 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.”
–USA Today

“COMPELLING . . . Reading [this] book is like having an intimate conversation with a friend who is baring her soul.”
–Charleston Post and Courier

–San Antonio Express-News

BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Elizabeth Berg's Once Upon a Time, There Was You.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307763433
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/15/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 199
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Elizabeth Berg's first novel, Durable Goods, was called "a gem"  by Richard Bausch. Her other novels include Talk Before Sleep, Range of Motion, The Pull of the Moon, and Joy School. In 1997, she won the NEBA award for fiction.  She lives in Massachusetts.


Chicago, Illinois

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

Outside the airplane window the clouds are thick and rippled, unbroken as acres of land. They are suffused with peach-colored, early morning sun, gilded at the edges. Across the aisle, a man is taking a picture of them. Even the pilot couldn't keep still--"Folks," he just said, "we've got quite a sunrise out there. Might want to have a look." I like it when pilots make such comments. It lets me know they're awake.

Whenever I see a sight like these clouds, I think maybe everyone is wrong; maybe you can walk on air. Maybe we should just try. Everything could have changed without our noticing. Laws of physics, I mean. Why not? I want it to be true that such miracles occur. I want to stop the plane, put the kickstand down, and have us all file out there, shrugging
airline claustrophobia off our shoulders. I want us to be able to breathe easily this high up, to walk on clouds as if we were angels, to point out our houses to each other way, way, way down there; and there; and there. How proud we would suddenly feel about where we live, how tender toward everything that's ours--our Mixmasters, resting on kitchen counters; our children, wearing the socks we bought them and going about children's business; our mail lying on our desks; our gardens, tilled and expectant. It seems to me it would just come with the perspective, this rich appreciation.

I lean my forehead against the glass, sigh. I am forty-seven years old and these longings come to me with the same seriousness and frequency that they did when I was a child.

"Long trip, huh?" the woman next to me asks.
"Oh," I say. "Yes. Although . . . Well, I sighed because I wish I could get out. You know? Get out there and walk around."
She looks past me, through the window. "Pretty," she says. And then, "Of course, you'd die."
"Oh, well. What's not dangerous?"

"Beats me," the woman says. "Not food. Not water. Not air, not sex. You can't do anything. Well, maybe put your name on the list for Biosphere." We smile, ruefully. She's pretty, a young blond businesswoman wearing a stylish navy-blue suit, gold jewelry, soft-looking leather heels now slipped off her feet. At first, she busied herself with paperwork. Now
she's bored and wants to talk. Fine with me. I'm bored, too.

"Do you ever think that this is the end of the world?" I ask. "I mean, don't get me wrong--"
"Oh, I know what you mean," she says. "I do think about that. Dying planets, how . . . unspecial we are, really. Just the most current thing in the line since paramecia."

The flight attendant stops her cart beside us, asks if we'd like a drink. This seems petty, considering the content of our conversation. Still, I request orange juice; the woman beside me says she'd like a scotch.

"You know what?" I tell the flight attendant. "I think I'll have a scotch, too." I have always wondered who in the world would want a cocktail on an early morning flight. Now I know: people with a load on their minds that they would like very much to lighten.

After my seatmate and I have pulled down our trays and set up our impromptu bar, I say, "I don't even like scotch."
"Me neither." She shrugs, takes a sip, grimaces. "But I really hate flying. Sometimes this helps."
I smile, extend my hand. "I'm Ginny Young."
"Martha Hamilton."
"You live in California?"
"Yeah. San Francisco. You?"
"I live in Boston. I'm going to visit my mother. She lives in Mill Valley."
"Nice. How long since you've seen her?"
I do some math, then answer, "Thirty-five years."
Martha turns toward me, stares. I know her scotch is pooled in her mouth.

I shrug. "I don't like my mother. I'm not ashamed to say that. She's not a good person. She did some things . . . Well, she's not a good person." Whenever people I've met tell their mother horror stories, I save mine for last. It's the best, because it's the worst.

"So . . . why are you going to see her?"
"It was my sister's idea. She thinks she's sick. Not my mother--her."
"Is she?"
"Don't know. She's waiting for some test results. But she wanted to go and see our mother. Just . . . in case. You know. Unfinished business that she feels she needs to attend to."
Martha breathes out. "Jesus. I'm sorry."
She touches my arm. "Are you all right?"
"Me? Yes! It's . . . this is old. It's so old. I didn't intend ever to see my mother again, and I was perfectly comfortable with that. I won't see her after this visit; I know that. I'm just doing this for my sister. Even though I don't really think she's sick. She can't be."

Martha nods, cracks an ice cube with her teeth, then looks at me, one eyebrow raised.
"Right," I say. "I know."
"I'll tell you something," Martha says. "I was in a cemetery last week, walking my dog. You're not supposed to walk your dog there, so when I heard someone coming, I hid behind this big marker. I saw a woman stop just a few graves away. She knelt down and started talking out loud. She was apparently talking about one of her kids who was giving her a really hard time, and then she said, "I didn't do that to you, Ma, did I? Did I?" And then she lay down and just started crying. She cried so hard! It was one of those things where the grief is so raw, you can't help yourself--you start crying, too. And when I started crying, my dog started barking. The woman looked up and saw me, of course. She got all
embarrassed--jumped up and wiped her face, started straightening her clothes and rummaging around in her purse for something or other. And I felt terrible. It was terrible to have a dog there, those rules are absolutely right. I apologized, but I still felt like a jerk.

"All the way home, I wondered what that woman was crying about, what she had remembered. I wondered if other daughters talk to their mothers when they visit their graves, whether if, when my mother dies, I will. Seems like a good party question, doesn't it?--What would you say at your mother's grave? Well, maybe not a party question. But an interesting one. At least you'll have the chance to speak to her in person."

"Right," I say, although what I'm thinking is, there's nothing I want to tell my mother. I'm only going for Sharla. I love my sister; I'm finished with my mother, have been for a long time. Not for nothing did I sit in therapists' offices going through a forest's worth of Kleenex.

"Where does your sister live?" Martha asks.
"Texas. San Antonio. She'll be at the airport waiting; her flight gets in twenty minutes before mine."
"Has she seen your mother in all this time?"
"Wow. This will be some meeting."
"I know," I say, and drain what's left of the scotch. Then I squeeze the plastic glass to see how far I can bend it. Not far: it cracks in my hand. I put it in the throw-up bag, fold the top over, place it neatly in the center of my tray table. I don't want to talk anymore. I lean
back, look out the window. I have my reasons, I tell myself--and Martha, too, in case she's picking up on my thoughts--she's from California, after all; they do stuff like that. But I do have my reasons. I absolutely do.


"Miss?" the flight attendant asks. "Breakfast?" I startle, then smile and nod yes to the fat slices of French toast she is offering me. I am probably the only one in the world who likes airline food. I appreciate the inventive garnishes, the only-for-you serving sizes. I like the
taste of the salad dressings. When the entrée is something like pizza, I think, well, isn't that the cutest thing. Naturally, I don't admit this to anyone.

Martha has opted for the cheese omelet, and when I watch her cut it neatly in half, I wish I'd gotten one too. She shrugs after her first bite, the physical equivalent of "Yuck." I smile, shrug back, pour the thick artificial maple syrup over my French toast. It looks delicious.

"I saw a row of three across open back there," Martha says, after she's eaten most of her breakfast. "I think I'll go on back and stretch out for a while."

"Unless you were thinking of that, too. In that case, we could flip for it."
"No, this is fine," I say. "I'll have more room, too. Anyway, I'm not going to sleep."

"Really? Any plane trip over an hour, I have to sleep. Otherwise I get stir-crazy. Once I brought letters to read on an airplane. You know, the kind of thing you keep, thinking sometime you'd really like to read them again, but then you never do. I brought along this huge stack of letters from old boyfriends. I took them out and read them all. They passed the time all right, but it was so embarrassing--they made me cry. I'll never do that again! Better to go to sleep and embarrass yourself by drooling." She stands, opens the overhead bin and pulls down a pillow and a blanket, heads down the aisle.

I know what Martha means about old letters. One rainy day after my younger daughter had gone to school, I went down into the basement and got out my battered cardboard box of love letters. I brought it up to the bedroom and dumped it out on the bed. Then I remember putting on this old purple cardigan that had a rip at the elbow--it was a little
cold--and I sat and read those letters. All of them: sweet, morning-after notes full of misspellings that Tom Winchell had taped onto my bathroom mirror; fountain-penned missives from Tim Stanley, who went on to study theology, and I know why--so he could stand in a pulpit and talk, talk, talk. I read things that made me get soft at the center again, that made me stare out the window and sigh. I got absolutely lost in reverie; I felt really out of it for hours after I'd finished reading those letters. I almost called one of my old boyfriends, but I could anticipate what would happen. I would pour out a rush of sentiment--"Now, this doesn't mean anything, but do you remember, do you remember the incredible love we felt for each other, do you remember when we stayed out all night to watch the sun come up by the river and you put your jacket around me and I had a cut on my lip and you kissed me so gently it made me think I could never, never leave you?" I'd say something like that and the now-balding Larry Drever, holding the phone at the desk from which he sells life insurance, would say, ". . . Who is this?"

So I know it's dangerous to reenter the past. Especially when things come back to you as strongly as they do to me. I'm extremely good at remembering, have had this ability since I was very young. Give me one rich detail, and I'll reconstruct a whole scene. Say "Dairy Queen," and I'll recall a night in high school when I was there with a bunch of friends and a cloud of gnats hung around Joe Antillo's head and he reached up to swat them away and spilled his root-beer float all over himself and Trudy Jameson, who was wearing a blue shirt tied at the waist, and jeans with one back pocket torn off and her silver charm bracelet and "Intimate" perfume. She had a cold that night. A few days earlier, her eight-year-old brother Kevin had fallen off his bicycle and cut his knee so badly he'd required seven stitches, half of which he removed later that night with his sister's manicure scissors--"just to see what would happen," he told his horrified parents when they drove
him back to the emergency room. "How do you remember all these details?" people ask me all the time. I don't know how. I just do. One image leads to another, then another, as though they're all strung together. And in any given memory I summon up, I become again the person I was then--I feel the weather, I feel everything. I lose the person I am now to some other, younger self.

It can hurt you, remembering--the shock of reentry, the mild disorientation, the inevitable sadness that accompanies a true vision of the past. Still, right now, staring out the window at the land far below me, realizing I have no idea where I am, I want nothing more than to do absolutely that. I want to go back to the time when I started to lose my mother, and search for clues as to why and how. I suppose it's about time. I lean my seat back. Close my eyes. Begin.

Reading Group Guide

Reader's Guide copyright © 1999 by The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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 she nor 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?

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What We Keep 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not Up to Berg's standard - slow reading
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
DSlongwhite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book begins with a woman on a plane going to visit her mother whom she hasn't seen in thirty-five years. She then flashes back to the summer she was twelve and Jasmine Johnson moved in next door. She is a charasmatic character and the family begins to unravel.The writing was great as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Obviously this is an author who knows how to write, but i felt the characters were not lovable in the slightest. I didn't like how the father got away with what he did and the fact that he not being honest allowed these girls to hate and distance themselves from their mother. That fact needed to be expounded on and wasn't. Bad writing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good story for mothers and daughters to read makes you think about the relationship between them
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Babchiof6 More than 1 year ago
The book was interesting but not on my top ten list. It was a book I would recommend to avid readers. There are so many better books that I have read and would recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
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TigerDB More than 1 year ago
Another good book from Elizabeth Berg!
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