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Small Truths

Berg's short stories find truth in life's contradictions

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Elizabeth Berg's new collection of 15 stories unfolds like a quiet Sunday morning spent chatting with a close friend, reading the newspaper and sipping coffee. There are no extraordinary moments here, just prose pregnant with the qualities for which many readers have grown to love Berg's fiction: great, generous dollops of intimacy, honesty and humor that celebrate and explore the intricacies that shape the essence of women's lives -- a hope that "somewhere under our breaths, we're all singing the same song. And although it's only us sharing the same notes in the same way, some ethereal harmony is created, as magical and as reliable as the first evening star." In the title story, "Ordinary Life," 79-year-old Mavis McPherson, always too busy and too distracted, realizes that she's never taken the time to just "think," but is helpless to explain her urgent need to do so now. Her husband reacts by thinking that Mavis is contemplating divorce, and spends the week attempting to coerce her out of a locked bathroom, where she has retreated. Mavis remains inside, surviving on Wheat Thins, candy bars, and Orangina. But what she discovers there is a longing for the familiar and the ordinary in her past life; not the people, but the surroundings -- the bathroom scale she used to weigh herself on, the old bedroom wallpaper, the old refrigerator, and the ribbed glass container with its big square blocks of butter. "How could she have known that ordinary life would have such allure later on?"

Berg's stories can only be called spiritual glimpses into vulnerability, illuminating and illustrating that we "are meant to celebrate the extraordinary moments and events that make up ordinary life," for in the flux of chaos and change, those are the things we long for.

In "What Stays," the narrator reflects upon her mother's descent into mental illness, recalling that in the 1950s, a mother who thought of baking as an occupation was not all that uncommon, but a mother who would yell, loudly and passionately, was. Other mothers were busy making dinner from cookbooks and wearing calm and sensible clothing with aprons over them, while her mother had become a "living dead person," lying motionless in bed, "staring at nothing." But in the end, the narrator learns that what was most important to her, was not "what was gone," but "what would stay."

On the surface, these stories sometimes deal with the superficial details of women's lives, but beneath, they are quiet and dark and seek a greater understanding. From the opening sentence of each story, the reader is left with the impression that these characters are stalemated or defeated. In "White Dwarf," a couple struggles to remain together following an infidelity. "There was no fighting. Their life worked: their children fought and laughed with one another, did well in school, and confessed readily to small crimes they committed." But each time George and Phyllis attempt to make love, Phyllis bursts into tears. Seeking a change and hoping things will get better, Phyllis suggests they take a trip with one another. But while in the car on the way to their destination, Phyllis is troubled that George is so comfortable with the silence in the car and suggests they play a word-association game. But what they unexpectedly learn through their play is that sometimes, making a relationship work can be worth the trouble.

What's striking about these stories is that one is simultaneously left with the impression that they indulge in sentimentality, and yet are emotionally removed. Berg's prose is measured and delicate, wise and insightful, a quiet, stately minuet of life's contradictions, and a collection whose truth is impossible to walk away from.

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