Generally, I tend not to care who authors’ favorite authors are, but when one of my favorite writers, someone whose books I anticipate, says they read “anything by” another author, well, color me intrigued.
This is how I discovered Elizabeth Berg. Augusten Burroughs—author of Running with Scissors, Dry and a really depressing memoir that I didn’t love but read anyway—said in an interview that he reads anything of hers. Anything! I mean sure, I like a lot of writers, but narrow the list to those entire oeuvre I’ve consumed and the pickings get slim. Five, maybe ten tops. (That list is a post for another day.) So Home Safe is my inaugural Elizabeth Berg book.
Home Safe is one of those books that’s kind of about nothing. There’s no tangible conflict (the main character’s husband dies, but the book starts after that), just emotional ones. Writing about these kinds of issues, this ennui that seems endemic of being upper-middle-class Americans with the liberty to feel things like general sadness, isn’t always my cup of tea—sometimes I find myself waiting for the sex and explosions. But there are a lot of authors who do it right, and Elizabeth Berg is one of them, at least based on this book.
The narrative of Home Safe follows Helen, a recent widow (and ugh, don’t spontaneous and inexplicable husband deaths just fuck with your whole perception of the world) and her 20-something daughter Tessa. There are other characters—Helen teaches a writing class whose students we meet; Helen’s friend Midge, Helen’s parents—but the book isn’t really about them. It’s about grief, and the way we deal with grief, and it’s about mothers and daughters. It’s especially about mothers and daughters.
When my own mother was in town a few weeks ago, at some point during her visit, she confessed that she worried about me, often. “Why?” I asked. I mean, what’s there to worry about? I have my own apartment, good friends, a solid social life, a great job—all things considered, my shit is pretty together. “You know,” she said, “like if you’re happy.”
Isn’t this, more than anything, what parenting is about? That even when she’s hundreds of miles away and I’ve told her for the umpteenth time that everything is “fine, I swear,” she still worries. And not about the tangible stuff (which isn’t to say my mom doesn’t perpetually share her opinions on my tangible life decisions: dating, saving money, exercising) but about the intangible: about the way I feel. A happy email to mom gets me a return email; a sad one, an email where I confess I’m having a hard time, gets a response and a text, and perhaps a follow-up phone call. Because when I’m happy she’s happy, and when I’m sad, she wants to fix it. No matter how far away I move or how old I get, that will always be true.
I’m reluctant to send Home Safe to my mom lest she take it the wrong way—”Do you think I’m like that?”—but this book hits the nail on the head when it comes to this stuff, to growing up, leaving the nest, redefining your relationship with your parents. Some of the conversations between Tessa and Helen read like recordings of my own conversations with my mom, and that’s neither a compliment nor a lament. The dynamic of their relationship was so real to me that I teared up on the train reading, and was more than once tempted to call my younger sister and read passages out loud to her, just so I could say “Isn’t that so true?” Elizabeth Berg is a great writer, no doubt about it, but it’s not because her style is particularly intense, or her vocabulary incredibly expansive; it’s because she can write about emotion and make you feel it too. And wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what Augusten Burroughs said.
Home Safe isn’t chick lit, not the way say, The Devil Wears Prada is, but it’s a woman’s book, if only because the relationship being explored is between two women. That said, if Berg is this emotionally on point all the time, I have no doubt I’ll be reading more of her work, and recommending it. Home Safe is a quick read, but not a “fun” one, compelling but not addictive, leisurely but not slow. One gets the impression Elizabeth Berg has spent a lot of time watching people, because her characters feel like real people and this, more than anything else, is the book’s strength. The writing is just a vehicle to introduce you to Helen and Tessa, and they’re worth knowing.
TITLE: Home Safe
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Berg
PAGES: 258 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Open House, The Last Time I Saw You
SORTA LIKE: White Oleander meets Falling Man
FIRST LINE: “One Saturday when she was nine years old, Helen Ames went into the basement, sat at the card table her mother used for folding laundry, and began writing.”