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A Novel

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List Price: $11.99


On Sale: May 01, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-627-6
Published by : Random House Random House Group

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New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg takes us to Chicago at the time of World War II in this wonderful story about three sisters, their lively Irish family, and the men they love.
As the novel opens, Kitty and Louise Heaney say good-bye to their boyfriends Julian and Michael, who are going to fight overseas. On the domestic front, meat is rationed, children participate in metal drives, and Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller play songs that offer hope and lift spirits. And now the Heaney sisters sit at their kitchen table every evening to write letters–Louise to her fiancé, Kitty to the man she wishes fervently would propose, and Tish to an ever-changing group of men she meets at USO dances. In the letters the sisters send and receive are intimate glimpses of life both on the battlefront and at home. For Kitty, a confident, headstrong young woman, the departure of her boyfriend and the lessons she learns about love, resilience, and war will bring a surprise and a secret, and will lead her to a radical action for those she loves. The lifelong consequences of the choices the Heaney sisters make are at the heart of this superb novel about the power of love and the enduring strength of family.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter 1

APRIL 1943

It was Kitty’s turn to sleep with her head at the foot of the bed. She didn’t mind; she preferred it, actually. She liked the mild disorientation that came from that position, and she liked the relative sense of privacy—her sisters’ feet in her face, yes, but not their eyes, not their ears, nor the close, damp sounds of their breathing. And at the foot of the bed she was safe from Louise, who often yanked mercilessly at people’s hair in her sleep.
Tonight Kitty was last to bed, having been last in the bathroom. Everybody liked it when Kitty was last in the bathroom because, of the eight people living in the house, she always took the longest. Apart from the normal ablutions, she did things in there: affected poses she thought made her look even more like Rita Hayworth—she did look like Rita Hayworth, everyone said so. She filed her fingernails, she experimented with combining perfumes to make a new scent, she creamed her face, she used eyebrow pencil to make beauty marks above her lip. She also read magazines in the bathroom because there, no one read over her shoulder. Oh, somebody would bang on the door every time she was  in there, somebody was always banging on the bathroom door, but a  girl could get a lot done in a room with a locked door. Kitty could do more in five minutes in the bathroom than in thirty minutes anywhere else in the house, where everyone in the family felt it their right—their obligation!—to butt into everyone else’s business.
When Kitty came out of the bathroom, she tiptoed into the bedroom, where it appeared her sisters were already asleep—Tish on her side with her knees drawn up tight, Louise with the covers flung off. Kitty crouched down by Louise and whispered her sister’s name. Kitty wanted to talk; she wasn’t ready to sleep yet. But Louise didn’t budge.
Kitty moved to the bottom of the bed, slid beneath the covers, and sighed quietly. She stared up at the ceiling, thinking of Julian, of how tomorrow he would be leaving, off to fight in the Pacific with the Marines, and no one knew for how long. And Michael, Louise’s fiancé, he would be leaving, too, leaving at the same time but going in the opposite direction, for he was in the Army and shipping out to Europe. And why were they not in the same branch of the service, these old friends? Because Julian liked the forest green of the Marine uniforms better than the olive drab of the Army or the blue of the Navy. Also because James Roosevelt, the president’s son, was in the Marines.
It seemed so odd to Kitty. So frightening and dangerous and even romantic; there was an element of romance to this war, but mostly it just felt so odd. As though the truth of all this hadn’t quite caught up with her, nor would it for a while. No matter the graphic facts in FDR’s Day of Infamy speech after the bombing of Pearl Harbor: the three thousand lives lost, the next day’s declaration of war on Japan, then Germany’s declaration of war on the United States. Kitty’s facts were these: she was Kitty; he was Julian; every Saturday night they went downtown for dinner at Toffenetti’s and then to one of the movie palaces on State Street. Sometimes, after that, he would take her to the Empire Room at the Palmer House for a pink squirrel, but her parents didn’t like for Kitty to stay out so late, or to drink. Now his leave after basic was up and he was shipping out, he was going over there. And both boys foolishly volunteering for the infantry!
Kitty rose up on her elbows and again whispered Louise’s name. A moment, and then she spoke out loud. “Hey? Louise?” Nothing. Kitty fell back and rested her hands across her chest, one over the other, then quickly yanked them apart. It was like death, to lie that way; it was how people lay in coffins. She never slept that way, she always slept on her side. Why had she done that? Was it a premonition of some sort, a sign? What if it was a sign? “Louise!” she said, and now her sister mumbled back, “Cripes, Kitty, will you go to sleep!” It was good to hear her sister’s voice, even in anger. It soothed and anchored her. She breathed out, closed her eyes, and in a short while felt herself drifting toward sleep. She wanted to dream of Julian on the day she first met him: confident, careless, his blond hair mussed and hanging over one eye, his short-sleeved shirt revealing the disturbing curves of his muscles. She tried to will herself toward that.

From the Hardcover edition.
Elizabeth Berg|Author Q&A

About Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg - Dream When You're Feeling Blue

Photo © Joyce Ravid

Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels, including Tapestry of Fortunes, The Last Time I Saw You, Home Safe, The Year of Pleasures, and Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, as well as two collections of short stories and two works of nonfiction. Open House was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year, Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for an Abby Award, and The Pull of the Moon was adapted into a play. Berg has been honored by both the Boston Public Library and the Chicago Public Library. She is a popular speaker at venues around the country, and her work has been translated into twenty-seven languages. She is the founder of Writing Matters, a reading series designed to serve author, audience, and community. She divides her time between Chicago and San Francisco.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Elizabeth Berg

Random House Reader’s Circle: You set your last novel, We Are All Welcome Here, during a time when the civil rights movement was at its peak. Now, Dream When You’re Feeling Blue takes place during the Second World War. What attracted you to this period in history? Are you particularly interested in writing about tumultuous times?

Elizabeth Berg: I think conflict is one of the things that makes for a good story. It often acts as the “pull-through”–a reader wonders how things will be resolved. But what attracted me to the forties in particular? Well, one thing is that I’ve always loved the food, the fashion, the language, and the mentality (so far as I understand it) of that era. More important, we are losing the last of the “greatest generation,” and many of us have such respect and admiration for them. I wanted to write a kind of tribute to them.

RHRC: Your parents, aunts, and uncles all lived through the war. Did any of their memories or experiences influence your book?

EB: Oh, absolutely. I didn’t use things literally, but certainly their anecdotes and feelings about what life was like then very much affected what I wrote. My aunts used to talk about how exciting it was to have handsome young soldiers everywhere, and the unity of the country at the time–the way everyone supported “our boys” in very concrete ways. They described how it felt to fight over clothes and sleep three in a bed. They showed me V-mails and photographs they’d kept. They even passed along makeup techniques of the time. My mother and her five sisters have always been living examples of the great love that can exist among sisters–and in a large family. Two of my uncles were in the war, and one was on Omaha Beach on D-day. Their recollections were invaluable, and their recall amazing.

RHRC: Dream When You’re Feeling Blue is, first and foremost, a novel about sisters in a large, close-knit family. Do you have sisters? Were aspects of this story inspired by your own family relationships?

EB: I have one sister. Our relationship is different from that of my mother and her sisters. But when we did have to sleep in the same bed, I’m afraid I was guilty of yanking on her hair. Also, the character of Frank Heaney was very much inspired by my grandfather.

RHRC: You’re a Chicagoan, and the wartime city forms a vivid backdrop to the novel. What were some of the challenges and rewards of writing a novel set sixty years ago in your own backyard?

EB: It was inspiring to look at train stations and hotels and department stores and other buildings that existed then and imagine how they must have looked during the war years and think about all that went on. The challenge, when you’re writing about real places, is to not make any mistakes!

RHRC: It’s incredible to see how much has changed in the past sixty years. From gender roles to sleeping arrangements to e-mail, things are very different in America today. Can you name one thing that you think has changed for better, and one that’s changed for worse?

EB: I think our willingness to be open with our feelings and more tolerant of those whose lifestyles are different from our own is a change for the better. What’s worse is the way we’re so time-stressed. I regret the loss of a kind of innocence, a pleasure in simple things, time for people to be with one another, face-to-face. People’s word doesn’t mean as much as it used to, either, and that’s a big loss.

RHRC: Do you have a favorite character from Dream When You’re Feeling Blue?

EB: My favorite character is Frank Heaney, but his wife is a close second.

RHRC: As a writer, do you find it difficult to let bad things happen to your characters?

EB: I find it necessary. I feel as though early on in the writing process, the story starts to tell itself. In that respect, I don’t feel I “let” things happen; they just do. That said, I felt really bad when Michael died. And I cried writing the ending!

RHRC: Kitty’s decision at the end of the novel to “give” Hank to her sister Louise seems unthinkable by modern standards. What is your opinion of Kitty’s choice?

EB: The ending is something a lot of people have a hard time with. But I knew I wanted Kitty to “give” her sister her man when I first began the book (though I thought it would be Julian!). I’m hard-pressed to say why this was my goal, but for me it made perfect sense: Kitty was an immature and rather selfish young woman who really grew up in the book. She was inordinately close to Louise, and very worried about what would become of her when Michael died. She was also ambivalent about giving up her newfound independence–despite their great love for each other, after Hank came home, she and he were beginning to ravel around the edges. Hank was very clear that he wanted a homemaker wife and children, and he wanted to get started right away. Kitty felt confused about choosing a stay-home-with-children life over a working life–remember, in those days, it wasn’t often that a woman could or would do both. I met a woman at a reading who told me how much she loved the ending, and she said she knew why it had to happen: “Kitty promised Michael,” she said. And that’s true. I think, too, that Kitty thought that in time she might find another man–after all, things didn’t work out with Julian but she went on to find someone better suited to her. But then, as it happened, she never did find another man. She loved Hank all her life, and he her. Some people find that tragic–and vexing, too. But I’m not so sure that Hank and Kitty didn’t achieve a better happiness for themselves without letting go of their love for each other. Would Kitty really have been happy if she felt she’d had to sacrifice so much for her marriage? Would Hank have been happy knowing he kept Kitty from doing something she wanted to do and was good at? Would their love have turned to bitterness as the years went by? As it happened, Kitty got to have a family by having nieces and nephews; she also got to have a rewarding career. Louise would have preferred to marry Michael, but she cared deeply for Hank. Hank would have preferred to marry Kitty, but he ended up with someone he also cared deeply for and who shared his values. I’m not convinced that shades of this don’t occur all the time in relationships. Another point to consider, when looking at this ending, is the fact that it reflects the truncated feeling you have if you lose someone to war–he’s there, then he’s not. You are hurt, angry, and bewildered–and these are some of the feelings readers have expressed about the end. Writing it was taking a risk, but I have to let a book go where it wants to. The ending also showed that sacrifice doesn’t occur just on the battlefield; it reflected yet another aspect of the cost of war.

RHRC: Hattie says, “I believe that there’s a lot more than one man for me . . . and more than one woman for every man” (p. 252), but Kitty never does fall in love with anyone after Hank. Do you agree with Hattie, or do you think Kitty’s experience is more realistic?

EB: Both. In this wide world, I don’t think that there’s just one person for any of us. I think we look until we find one that feels right, and oftentimes it works out just fine. But that doesn’t mean that if we’d kept on looking, we wouldn’t have found another person who was just as good or even better. Of course, if you want to have a successful relationship, you give up searching when you find one that works. Hey, it’s like picking out tomatoes: when you find the number of good-looking ones you need, you stop digging through the bin. What would be the point in looking for more, when you have what you need?

RHRC: You’ve written many novels. Did you learn anything new by writing Dream When You’re Feeling Blue?

EB: I always learn a lot when I write a novel. In this case, I learned how wonderful it might feel to be part of a large family. How patriotism might feel good. How romantic it must have been to dress up and go to a club and dance with a soldier you might never see again to songs like “Long Ago and Far Away.” I learned about the honor in sacrifice, the value of putting someone else first.

RHRC: As a writer of women’s fiction, are there particular aspects of women’s lives that you particularly hope to depict, celebrate, or criticize in your books?

EB: I hope to show the great worth of women. So far as I’m concerned, we’re still underappreciated.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Elizabeth Berg titles Dream When You’re Feeling Blue after a Johnny Mercer song, and the popular culture of the 1940s is referenced throughout the novel. Can you find some descriptions of the popular culture of the day? How does the title enhance or complement the narrative?

2. The discombobulation and strangeness of the wartime era are fore-grounded throughout the story, often in counterpoint to the normalcy of the Heaneys’ everyday life. Can you find some examples?

3. Kitty’s love for Louise “made her her best self.” (p. 180) Many different kinds of love are depicted in the novel. What kind of love do you think makes each character his or her best self?

4. “It’s not the ring that makes you engaged. It’s the promise,” Louise says (p. 21), and the novel examines the difference between symbols and the realities they’re believed to represent. Which symbols in the book accurately represent reality? Which do not?

5. “If you weren’t engaged you were nothing” (p. 27) is the message Kitty has seen in advertisements all around her. What differences in gender roles and expectations did you notice between the forties and today?

6. Kitty never marries or has children of her own. Do you think it is fair to say that her real “children” are her sisters and brothers? Why or why not? Do you think Kitty is happy with her life at the end?

7. Visions and premonitions play an important role in the novel. Can you find some examples of premonitory visions or dreams? How do they shape the narrative?

8. “Kitty and her sisters had always looked down on girls who got pregnant out of wedlock, on those who had relations outside of marriage” (p. 164), but Margaret defends Louise, saying that “her terrible crime was to show love to her fiancé.” (p. 180) Do you think Louise and Michael make the right decision?

9. Throughout the novel, the role of deceit–often well-meaning or by omission–is highlighted as an unavoidable aspect of family life. Think of some instances of deceit in the novel, then discuss. Were the consequences positive or negative?

10. The Heaneys are devout Catholics, and each of them struggles with the moral ambiguities of war. In particular, how do Kitty, Tommy, Margaret, and Frank come to terms with this issue? How does Hank influence Kitty’s opinions? Which characters’ ideas are the most compelling to you?

11. In your opinion, was Frank Heaney a good father? Why or why not?

12. The family always said, “If one Heaney girl loved you, the three of them did. And if you loved one Heaney girl, you loved them all.”(p. 211) What do you think of Kitty’s sacrifice? Did she make the right decision for herself? For Louise? For Hank? Do you think Julian and Tish were happy together in the long run?

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