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Book Club Wed Apr 11 2007

May Selection: The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg

This could be a very simple story, and in a sense it is. A woman, not too old but not young either, loses her husband to a devastating sickness and is left to pick up the pieces of her once secure and comfortable life. This is what’s happened to Betta Nolan, and as we’re introduced to her as she picks out an ice cream cone in a small town shop we’re immediately set to wonder what she’s doing, where she’s going and what brought her to this town of Stewart, Illinois, just outside Chicago.

Before her husband John’s cancer diagnosis, Betta’s life seemed perfect. She recounts the trips they took together, the pictures they took, the food they ate, the wildflowers he used to pick for her at a moment’s notice and even their seemingly sparse fights take on the role of the ideal push and pull of a perfect relationship. Betta’s marriage to John is so great that she practically envelops herself in him, cutting herself off from the rest of the world. While John may be all Betta needs, his death leaves her completely alone, wishing she had even just spent more time getting to know the neighbors. A promise to John during his last few days of life is what drives Betta to sell their Boston home to seek refuge elsewhere –- after retirement they’d always planned to move out to a small town in the Midwest, with John running a little neighborhood grocery store and Betta maybe opening a luxury store for women, filled with candles, bath scents, stationery and other items of indulgence. Betta’s promise to John is that after he dies she will follow through on the plan.

At times The Year of Pleasures seems predictable. There is no dearth of stories about women learning to live and love again after the loss of a husband, whether through death or infidelity or just sheer boredom, and Betta’s story travels dangerously close to these tracks. After appearing on the local early-morning radio show, a man interested in writing contacts Betta to discuss her work as a children’s book author and the two explore the option of romance; a college boy turns to her for inspiration and comfort just as he provides the same for her; the young son of the single mother next door looks up to her as a friend and teacher; and three friends who Betta hasn’t seen since college all rush to gather around her the second she reaches out to them. In her way, Betta is “getting her groove back,” but what keeps this story from becoming another Lifetime special is Elizabeth Berg’s talent for capturing emotion and detailing it in ways those who have felt it know to be true. Beyond the immediate anguish of John’s death, Betta finds grief popping up in the most normal of circumstances: “Who would I tell my old-lady fears to now?” she wonders. “Who would tell me I had lipstick on my teeth, or that the story I was telling, I’d already told? Who would, sotto voce, suggest a mint and not have it embarrass me?” Far from letting Betta wither up without her husband or do the character a disservice by having her discover she was always whole without him, Berg takes the time to explore what happens to a person when they fill themselves up with the love of their lives and later find them gone.

“Love what you love without apology.” This is one of John’s final messages to Betta and a fitting theme for the book. In what is usually a mourning period, Betta decides that the year after John’s death will be devoted only to those things that bring her pleasure. Betta’s never quite sure how to do that and some steps take her forward while others take her back, but this uncertainty is what makes Betta real. “This was the way we all lived,” she muses on the ebb and flow of hope and grief, “full to the brim with gratitude and joy one day, wrecked on the rocks to the next. Finding the balance between the two was the art and the salvation.” With Berg’s rich writing, Betta’s struggle to find that balance and end up on top makes The Year of Pleasures a worthwhile and heartwarming read.

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