Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg

High school reunion--a phrase greeted with great anticipation or great trepidation every five years--is the focus of The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg

From Booklist
For everyone who has received an invitation to their high-school reunion and broken out in a cold, clammy sweat, Berg nails the experience: the dread that morphs into downright fear; the bouts of self-doubt that coalesce into prolonged periods of self-loathing; the internal inventory that comes up short in the bragging-rights column. Of course, there’s just as much potential for life-affirming and life-altering revelations. Glory days can be relived, damaged reputations repaired, lapsed friendships restored, lost loves rekindled. As Dorothy, Pete, Mary Alice, Candy, and Lester consider returning to Clear Springs for their fortieth high-school reunion, each contemplates the chance for redemption and revenge, renewal and retribution. Ultimately, they are then surprised to discover how much they have yet to learn about human nature and their own capacity for joy and forgiveness. Luckily, the zestfully wise Berg is the perfect teacher for such tender lessons of the heart, and her sublimely authentic and winsome characters are apt students. Book groups are clamoring for upbeat yet significant works that are entertaining as well as enlightening; Berg’s latest novel satisfies and succeeds on both counts.

On pre-reunion thoughts
But he did finally agree to go to the reunion.  It might be interesting to see all those people again, even though he'd never really been close to any of them.  He'd pretty much kept to himself, for many reasons.  He wonders if any of his classmates look anything like they used to, or if at the reunion they'll all walk around squinting at name tags, then looking up with ill-disguised disbelief into a person's face.  He feels he still somewhat resembles the boy he used to be, but then he guesses that everyone does that, sees in the mirror a mercifully edited version of themselves different from what everyone else sees.

On marriage
...some people have very happy marriages.  I think the biggest problem is people's expectations are so high.  And so wrong!  People think marriage is going to be so romantic and fulfilling.  They think the other person is going to complete them.  But that's not what happens.  In a good marriage, you complete yourself while sharing a bathroom.  ...You need to give what you want.  And don't expect so much.  That only sets up up for disappointment.  If you expect anything, expect that marriage will be hard, that it will be work.  And expect that the pleasures will be erratic and often small, but they'll turn out to mean more than you know.

On a memory of youth
The last thing she thinks of before she falls asleep is a time she was a little girl outside playing on a summer night.  She was the first to be called in, and she resented it:  the sky was violet and the clouds were pink; the fireflies were just coming out; the taste of sweat at the bend in her elbow was delectable; and the earth had given up its heat to the coolness of evening, making the grass so pleasant to lie in.  She compalined bitterly to her group of friends about having to go in, and Mary Nix said, "We'll all have to go in in a few minutes, anyway.  You're just the first."  That made it better.  Then, when she got inside, there were clean sheets, and the light on at her bedside, and the covers turned down, and the little statue of the Virgin to whom she prayed every night and who she believed knew her best.  Knew everything, in fact, and just kept quiet about it.

On the current state of manners (as in my aversion to "Hi, guys" when greeting table of women diners!)
Mary Alice leans back in her chair to let the server remove her dinner plate.  "Still working on this?" he'd asked, and Mary Alice had, as usual, despaired of hearing that particular turn of phrase.  Whatever happened to "Still enjoying this?" or "Have you finished?" or "May I remove this?"  "Still working on this always reminds her of pigs at a trough.  Oh, but why fuss about such things?  She supposes she's getting old and cranky.

On surveying the room of reunion classmates
She stares at the floor and holds back some strong feeling that could be laughter or could be tears, either one.  Or both.  It comes to her that all of the people in this room are dear to her.  As if they all just survived a plane crash together or something.  All the drunks and the show-offs and the nice kids and the mean ones.  All the people she used to know and all the ones she never knew at all.  And herself, too.  She includes herself and her stingy little soul.  And oh, what a feeling.

In her newsletter sent out with the release of every new book, Ms. Berg says of The Last Time I Saw You
I think high school is something we never quite escape, and I've always wondered why that is.  This book let me explore that notion, and also taught me that there's always hope of a lot of things to come to you later in life, including love, either for yourself or for another, or both.

My initial reaction to this book was, "I liked it, I think."  Now days later when these characters have had a chance to roam around my mind and I've had a chance to really think about how subtly Ms. Berg wrote the human vulnerabilities of this select group of reunion attendees, I believe this book is much deeper than it first appears.  After attending my 35th reunion (40th and 45th have come and gone without me), I concluded that not much had changed.  The popular kids were still popular.  Those of us who weren't popular...well, you can guess.  Having read The Last Time I Saw You, I might just check the "yes" box on the invitation to the 50th. 

Random questions and thoughts
- Having read several in the M.C. Beaton Agatha Raisin series, I couldn't help but think of dear Agatha as Dorothy Shauman Ledbetter Shauman planned her outfit, hair and makeup for the reunion.

- Just why was this 40th reunion referred to in many places as the "last reunion"?

- My friend Suzanne and I are going to see Elizabeth Berg at the Brookline Booksmith on Monday, April 26.  Maybe I'll come back and post some more thoughts about this book after the event.

Rating:  3.5/5 (Fiction Scale)

High school, those are your prime suffering years.  You don't get better suffering than that.  -Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), Little Miss Sunshine

Every parting gives a foretaste of death as every reunion a hint of the resurrection. - Arthur Schopenhauer

Maybe one day I can have a reunion with myself.  - Sebastian Bach

P.S.  If you haven't done so, please click on the link above to Ms. Berg's website, then take some time to read her blog.  It's fantastic!

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