One of the things I love about my new, non-publishing life in New York is how much time I have to read. Between forty-minute subway rides and my lunch break on the steps of the iconic, lion-laden library, I even have excuses to open my book and whip through a couple of chapters.
In February, I started a book by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg. She is a realist women’s fiction writer who does what I revel in: writing about the day-to-day and making it not only interesting, but moving. In The Year of Pleasures, Betta is a recent widow struggling to make a new life without her husband, John. Their marriage was particularly strong as they were truly best friends and, because of infertility, they had no children to distract them. Because John died of cancer, Betta had time to prepare and to make promises to him, like that she would move away from their house and start a new life somewhere. So the book opens with her stopping in a small town south of Chicago and deciding that this was where she wanted to live.
The book is filled with beautiful lines, imagery, and observations. Betta takes moments to observe the birds sitting on a telephone wire or to watch children playing in the street. But overall, the story felt flat-lined. Nothing much happens, and when it does, it doesn’t really explore the full-breadth of that experience. For example, in the small town Betta sees things like laundry flapping in the wind and white-picket fences, and there is never one hint of the downside of this idyllic setting. Moreover, Berg has romanticized Betta’s relationship with John so that there is barely a negative memory. John himself seems perfect. Certainly in memory he would be romanticized, but there is no glimpse that this is what is happening.
To put it another way, everything that happens to Betta in the novel is good, except for the fact that her husband has died, which doesn’t happen during the actual plot. Because something is happening, the plot is moving forward, but it isn’t moving in an interesting or compelling direction because the reader isn’t worried about what will happen to the character. When the book ended, I was still waiting for the story to start.