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Written by Elizabeth BergAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth Berg

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On Sale: February 01, 2012
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-142-4
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this superb collection of short stories, the bestselling author of Open House and Talk Before Sleep takes us into the times in women’s lives when memories and events cohere to create a sense of wholeness, understanding, and change. In Ordinary Life, Mavis McPherson locks herself in the bathroom for a week, and no, she isn’t contemplating getting a divorce—she just needs some time to think, to take stock of her
life, and she comes to a surprising conclusion. In Today’s Special,a woman recognizes the solace she finds in the simple, timeless fare and atmosphere of the local diner and, ultimately, the harmony within her own spirit that familiar comforts can evoke. In White Dwarf, the secrets of a marriage are revealed as a couple passes the time with a seemingly insignificant word-association game. And in “Martin’s Letter to Nan,” the unforgettable husband and wife from Berg’s novel The Pull of the Moon engage in a new correspondence in which a different aspect of their marriage is revealed.

Elizabeth Berg’s fiction has been praised for its "brilliant insights about the human condition" (Detroit Free Press), and The Charlotte Observer has said that "Berg captures the way women think as well as any writer."Those same qualities of wisdom and insight are everywhere present in Ordinary Life.

Excerpt

Chapter 1
Ordinary Life: A Love Story

Mavis McPherson is locked in the bathroom and will not come out. The tub is lined with pillows and blankets. Under the sink, next to the extra toilet paper, there is an economy-sized box of Wheat Thins, a bowl of apples, and a six-pack of Heath bars. Against the wall, under the towel rack, is a case of Orangina, and next to that is a neat pile of magazines and three library books. A spiral-bound notebook and pen lie on top of the toilet tank. Hanging from the hook on the back of the door are several changes of underwear.

Mavis is on retreat, she tells her husband through the crack in the door when he comes home that evening. Al volunteers at St. Mary's Hospital, dividing his time between delivering newspapers to patients and helping maintenance fix faulty equipment, though this is a secret from the administration-volunteers aren't supposed to do that. Al's mechanical skills are legendary, but he is not known for his sense of humor. "Come on, Mavis," he sighs. "What's for dinner?"

"You might as well go on over to Big Boy," Mavis tells him. "I'm not cooking dinner. I'm not coming out for a week or so. It's nothing personal." She leans her ear against the crack in the door, listening for his response.

She hears only the wheezy sounds of him breathing in and out. She's afraid Al has emphysema, but he won't go to a doctor. "See 'em enough at the hospital," he always says. "Stuffy little bastards." She tries to look through the crack in the door, sees a tiny slice of Al's blue shirt, a piece of his ear. "Let me in, Mavis," he finally says, rattling the doorknob. "I gotta use the can."

"You know perfectly well we have another bathroom. You'll have to use that."

"I don't like that one. And it doesn't have a bathtub."

"Well, I know that."

"So how am I supposed to shower?" Al likes to shower in the evening, a characteristic Mavis has never liked, finding it somehow effeminate. Overall, though, she has few complaints. She loves Al dearly.

"You'll have to ask the neighbors," Mavis says. "Or maybe the Y. I'll bet the Y would let you shower there."

Silence. Then Al says, "What is this, Mavis, a fight? Is it a fight?"

She steps back, fingers the ruffled collar of her white blouse. "Why, no," she says, a little surprised. "I just got an idea that I really want some time completely to myself. And I'm taking it. I don't see the point in running off somewhere. We can't afford it anyway. Can we?"

Nothing.

"So," she says, "I'll stay right here. I don't need anything but some quiet. I want to be in a small room, alone, to just . . . relax, and not do anything else. I was thinking of the ocean, but this is fine."

"Oh, boy. I'm calling the kids," Al says. "And I'm calling Dr. Edelson or Edelman or whoever that robber is that you go to every twenty minutes. You've gone around the bend this time, Mavis. What have you got in there, Alzheimer's? Is that it?" He knocks loudly at the door. "Mavis, have you lost your goddamn mind?"

Mavis goes to the mirror to look at herself, tightens one of her pearl studs that has loosened, then walks back to the door. "I am seventy-nine years old, Al," she says softly, into the crack.

"What's that?"

"I say I'm seventy-nine years old," she says, louder.

He inhales sharply. "Aw, jeez. This is about my missing your birthday?"

"It's not my birthday for five months, Al. Remember? I was born in December. In a blizzard. Remember?"

"Well, I'm calling the kids," Al says. "Yes sir. All three of them. Right now." She hears his voice moving down the hall. "And your doctor, too."

"That's not necessary," Mavis calls out. And then, yelling, "Al? I'm not going crazy. I'm just thinking. I was going to tell you about this, but you . . ."

He can't hear her. She sits down on the closed seat of the toilet, peels the wrapper off a candy bar. "I am seventy-nine years old," she says aloud, and takes a bite. This is the beginning of what she wanted to say. Truthfully, she wasn't sure what would come next; she figured it would just happen, naturally. She examines the candy bar as she chews. She has always liked this, looking at food while she eats it. Makes it taste better. She wonders how they get that curly little swirl on the top of every candy bar. It's a nice touch, even though some machine did it and it is therefore not sincere. She crosses her legs, gently swings the top one, then leans over to the side to inspect it. She used to have great legs. "Oh, honey," Al had said the first time he undid her garters and pulled her nylons off. "Look at these gams." He had kissed her thighs, and she blushed so furiously she thought surely he'd see it in the dark. They were on their honeymoon, in a cottage in the Adirondacks. Her hair had been long and honey blonde, pulled back at the sides by two tortoiseshell combs, curled under at the bottom in a pageboy. The Andrews Sisters were on the radio at the moment she lost her virginity, her white negligee raised high over her breasts, one comb fallen off and digging into her shoulder, though not unpleasantly. She shook so hard when Al entered her he wanted to stop, but she wouldn't let him. "It's fine, honey," she said. "It just hurts." Her fingers were balled into fists against his back and she uncurled them, tried to relax. She looked for a place on the ceiling to focus on. She'd concentrate on that, take her mind off things.

"I can wait," Al had said. "Why don't I wait?" He'd raised himself up, tried to look into her face. But she hid herself in his shoulder, embarrassed and silent, then giggling.

"I don't think that helps, waiting," she'd finally said. "You just go on ahead. It's all right."

Afterward, they'd made a nest of the blankets and pillows, faced each other in the dim light, spoke in low tones of all the things they wanted to do: candlelit dinners every Saturday night, four children, the biggest Christmas tree on the lot every year. They touched each other's faces with the tips of their fingers, probed gently at the openings between each other's lips. At breakfast the next morning, Al had said Mavis looked different. More womanly. She said she'd noticed exactly the same thing.

He took her hand, she put down her fork, and they went back

to the bedroom. Already they had a special language, Mavis had thought, and the intimacy grounded her, fueled her. It hadn't hurt so much the second time.

"Hey, Mavis," Al says now, banging on the door. "Jonathan wants to talk to you. He's on the phone. You'd better come out here."

Mavis walks to the door, straightens her skirt, speaks loudly into the crack. "Listen to me, Al. I just told you I want to have a week to myself. I'm not coming out to talk on the telephone to Jonathan or any of the other children. I wish you'd stop running off and just let me tell you about this. No need to take offense or to think I'm crazy. For heaven's sake."

"Jonathan is on the phone, long distance," Al says.

Mavis rolls her eyes. "Well, I guess I know it's long distance, Al. If he lives in California and we live in Minnesota, then obviously it's long distance."

"So what am I supposed to say? That his mother can't be bothered talking to him?"

Mavis sighs, thinks for a moment. Jonathan in the Bathinette, his baby fists waving, his palm-sized chest rising up and down excitedly. "Water," Mavis is saying. "Yes, it's water, darling." A kerchief is around her head. She is wearing red lipstick and open-toed shoes.

Quietly, Mavis says, "Go and tell Jonathan that I'm fine, Al, that I'll call him in a week. And don't you say anything else. I can hear you, you know!"

She can't, of course, the phone is too far away, but Al doesn't know that. His hearing is starting to go, hers has thus far remained the same, so as far as Al is concerned, Mavis's hearing is suddenly extraordinarily acute.

"And come back after that," Mavis says. "I want to talk to you."

"The hell I will," Al says. "I'm going out."

"Where to?"

"The straitjacket store, that's where."

Big Boy, Mavis thinks. Well, good. When he comes back he'll be in a better mood. He'll get beef because she's not around to tell him not to, probably a cream pie for dessert, too. Fine. Then she'll be able to talk to him. Maybe he'll feel a little guilty about what he ate. That will work entirely to her benefit as well.

She slips off her shoes, climbs into the bathtub, lies back against the pillows. It's really not bad. For once in her life, she is happy she's so short. She wiggles her toes inside her nylons. She should have dressed more casually. She undoes the button on her skirt, then unzips it slightly. There is a tan-colored stain on her blouse between the second and third button. Coffee? She wets her finger, rubs at it. Well, she'll soak it later. It's convenient being in here. She closes her eyes. She's really very comfortable, could probably take a nap right now. But then it will be hard to sleep later on tonight.

She arranges the pillows to act as a backrest and climbs out of the tub to get a magazine. She feels the mean pull of arthritis in her knees. She selects a Good Housekeeping, climbs back in the tub, starts flipping through the pages, and realizes she's already looked at this one-there's the place where she tore out the recipe for low-fat lemon chicken.

Mavis used to give all her old magazines to her sister, Eileen, but her sister died last year. Breast cancer. She closes her eyes, lets herself hurt for a moment. The pain has not yet dulled, nor does she expect it to or even want it to.

Mavis and Eileen slept in the same bed as children; until she was eight, Mavis's preamble to sleep was to wrap Eileen's long hair around her fingers, then suck her thumb dreamily while drifting off. She had to make sure Eileen was sleeping first; Eileen got mad if she caught Mavis messing with her hair. Mavis had once tried wrapping her fingers in the folds of a satin doll dress her mother had given her for her birthday, but it wouldn't do-she needed the weighty, coarse silkiness of Eileen's hair. She liked the heat from Eileen's scalp at one end, reminding her of the thrilling fact of life; and the cool and bristly bluntness at the other end was wonderful to twitch your fingers over rapidly. It was worth getting caught every now and then for all that pleasure. The worst that ever happened was the night Mavis didn't wait long enough, and Eileen reared up like a ghost in her white nightgown and socked Mavis three times in the stomach. Otherwise any attack was a sleepy and halfhearted thing that barely hurt, a dull nudge in the rib, a smack on her leg that was off the mark and carried no more weight than a falling towel. And of course, she usually didn't get caught at all.

Mavis had gotten married first, and when Eileen asked her for certain essential details, Mavis had said, "Now, you might want to cry out. But don't." Oh, she missed her. Missed her. The conversations at the kitchen table, their elbows on the embroidered tablecloth, the steam from their coffee cups rising up. They would talk far into the night when they got together every week for dinner, and Al and Big Jim would get so impatient. They were all right as long as the fights were on, or some other sports event, but then the minute that was over, they wanted to go, one or the other of them, back home. When they were at Eileen's house, Al would come to stand at Mavis's shoulder, and she ignored him as long as she was able to. When they were at Mavis's, Big Jim would eventually sit down heavily at the table with them, simultaneously irritated and interested in what could possibly keep them here for so long, what could be so important that they hadn't even taken their aprons off from doing dishes before they sat down. They had just talked yesterday, hadn't they? Hell, they talked every day, didn't they?

On one memorable occasion, Al and Big Jim had both gone to sleep in the living room, both of them on the sofa with their heads back and their mouths open, and the women finally had the chance to completely exhaust themselves. They woke their husbands up at 2 a.m. after they'd taken a picture.


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

About Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg - Ordinary Life

Photo © Joyce Ravid

Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels as well as 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, and Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for an Abby Award. Her bestsellers also include The Year of Pleasures, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, and Dream When You’re Feeling Blue. Berg has been honored by both the Boston Public Library and the Chicago Public Library and is a popular speaker at various venues around the country. She lives near Chicago.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH BERG

Michelle Huneven lives in California and is the author of Round Rock and Jamesland.

Michelle Huneven:
Elizabeth, you say in your author’s note that these stories span a long period of time. How long? You also say that “Today’s Special” was the first story you wrote, but which is the most recent?

Elizabeth Berg: The stories span about fifteen years. The most recent story is “Martin’s Letter to Nan.”

MH:
What makes a short story a short story to you (as opposed to, say, a sketch, or a novel, or a memoir)? How do you conceive of a story? For example, Sue Miller says that, for her, a short story is made of two disparate elements that connect in an unexpected way. Other people—the epiphanists—say a short story tells of a moment after which life will never be the same. How would you sum up your idea of what makes a short story?

EB: I guess the most succinct way to say it is that the short story is a photo; the novel is a whole album. What stories “are,” as well as what happens in them, depends on both the photographer (the writer) and the subject. I write a mix of types.

MH: Do you have a story all mapped out before you write, or do you improvise as you go along? What has happened in one of these stories that most surprised you?

EB: I don’t really like questions about the writing process, because the truth is I don’t know how I write. But I’ll do the best I can. Ideas come from life: what happens in mine, what I see happening in others’, mixed with a great deal of imagination. I might see a person in a grocery store and build a whole character and life out of what’s in her basket. I might read a newspaper story about a guy on a bus and build a family for him. I might get a phone call from an old boyfriend and it might raise a lot of “what if” questions that become material. I might watch people in a bar, overhear a piece of a conversation. Material is all around, all the time. Pots are boiling on four burners. The only thing I have to do is feel in the mood to cook, which I usually do. Once I get a vague idea, I let the story write itself. When I write, I operate as a writer and a reader both—I never know what’s going to happen. “Take This Quiz” surprised me for its solemnity—I thought it was going to be a funny story. “The Thief” surprised me for its thoughtfulness and its sense of complicity.

MH: These are stories about ordinary life as led by fairly ordinary people—that is to say your stories aren’t peopled with movie stars or aristocrats or geniuses or insane people. Is this an aesthetic choice? If so, why?

EB: It’s not so much an aesthetic choice as a personal preference: I find “ordinary” people more interesting.

MH: In certain still life paintings, simple common objects —a knife, a bowl of fruit, a loaf of bread, or a tea pot—are painted with such care and heart that they seem infused with life, with their own humble importance, even with spirit. It seems to me that through your straightforward, careful language you are after a similar effect in your writing—a kind of sacralization of the everyday—is this true?

EB:
That is exactly it.

MH: Which is your most beloved story, and why? If they alternate, which is your favorite story today and what does it alternate with?

EB: In this collection, my favorite is the title story. I love the characters and the epiphany. In addition to that, any story that lets me talk about the ‘40’s is a good one for me. A close second is “Martin’s Letter to Nan,” which was really fun to write.

MH: Several stories (“Take This Quiz,” “Martin’s Letter to Nan,” “White Dwarf,”) remind me of a woman I know who claimed to specialize in making men talk, especially the strong, silent type of man. The problem, she said, was that once she got ‘em talking, she generally hated what they had to say. Do you like what your male characters have to say?

EB: I like it because I think it’s important. I believe many of the problems between the sexes come because of the lack of mutual respect. How do we resolve this? For me, honest dialogue is a good way to start, words that lead to each person seeing the other.

MH: Illness is one of your ongoing subjects in this collection, and in your hands, it seems like a place of exile and marginalization from ordinary life, a “departure from normal.” How do your characters reconnect with an ordinary life? Also, your ill characters are often as caregiving as their caregivers—I’m thinking of the mother in “Caretaking,” of Richard in “Sweet Refuge,” of the mother in “What Stays,” even the cancer-infected parakeet in “Departure from Normal.” What is it that your ill characters can bring to the healthy people around them?

EB: It is my belief, as well as my experience, that a bad diagnosis does separate you from others, from people who are normal (healthy). Of course, the joke, if you may call it that, is that any “normal” person is not safe from being ill themselves. The person expressing shock or sympathy over a friend’s diagnosis may themselves die from an illness long before their friend does. Or from an accident. Life is so fragile, so brief. And we seemingly work so hard at trying to ignore that. I think what ill people can bring to those who are healthy is a reminder to be grateful, to not to take things for granted. It is perhaps a bitter irony that those closest to death sometimes seem best able to enjoy life.

MH: Some of your characters forgive quite a lot—whether they’re asked to or not. George forgives Phyllis for her adultery. Kate forgives her cold, judgmental, sharp father (a feat!) in “One Time at Christmas, in My Sister’s Bathroom.” Several husbands forgive their dissatisfied, critical wives. Jane forgives her thief. Do you believe people in general are that forgiving? Why should they be? Is forgiveness ever inappropriate?

EB: I think forgiveness is extremely difficult in almost all cases. But I believe it’s vitally important. If you carry around hatred or bitterness against someone, who does it hurt more? I guess I would have to say that I don’t believe that forgiveness is ever inappropriate, which is not to say that the person forgiving doesn’t maintain her or his own integrity. You don’t have to give yourself away or deny your convictions in the act of offering forgiveness. But I think it’s good to try to get rid of angry feelings against someone—those feelings will eat you up inside. All that said, we are an imperfect species and we constantly screw up. It is not heaven here. Neither is it hell. Not on most days, anyway!

MH: You’ve written twelve novels and have published one story collection. What makes the novel more compelling to you than stories? Are you working on another book of short stories?

EB: I just happen to have focused more on novels. But I love the short story form and I am working on another collection. This is going to be mostly humorous stories. One of my favorites thus far is “The Day I Ate Whatever I &^$#(*& Wanted.”

Praise

Praise

“Immediate, moment-to-moment storytelling that unfolds with the naturalism and authenticity of real life.” —The Boston Globe

“An extraordinary short story collection that deserves our closest attention.” —Detroit Free Press

“Elizabeth Berg’s gift as a storyteller lies most powerfully in her ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, the remarkable in the everyday.” —The Boston Globe

“Berg’s...deftly drawn pictures of ordinary life can help remind us of its oft-unheeded charms.” —Los Angeles Times
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Elizabeth Berg’s writing style is spare, clear, accessible, and deft. Does it fit her material? Do you think it is easy to write this way?

2. Berg titles this collection Ordinary Life and her characters are all “ordinary” people. What is meant by the term “ordinary” in this book? And what is it about “ordinary life” and “ordinary people” that is so compelling?

3. In the title story, Mavis McPherson locks herself in the bathroom for a few days. Why? What good does it do? What harm? What happens in that bathroom, and what difference will the time she spent there cast over the rest of her life?

4. Martha in “Things We Used to Believe” sees herself as “severely married.” What does this tell us about her character? How does she describe her relationship with Alan? What do you think their relationship is? In the end, when she agrees she is “bad,” what does she mean?

5. Illness, in Ordinary Life, is seen as a “Departure from Normal.” How do people with terminal illnesses reconnect with so-called ordinary life? How could people who are estranged by illness come to feel less estranged, more a part of life? If you were given a bad diagnosis, what would help you feel less isolated and different?

6. In “Caretaking” and in “Sweet Refuge,” people are called on to care for others. In “Caretaking,” the daughter and her mother take turns as caregiver; in “Sweet Refuge,” Abby has her mind and heart opened by Richard. How do the ill care for us? What can we learn from people who are nearer to death than we are?

7. Adultery is a subject in several stories: “Things We Used to Believe,” “Regrets Only,” “What Stays,” and “White Dwarf.” In “White Dwarf,” George says of adultery, “These things happen.” How does his assessment
strike you? How does Berg portray adultery in these diverse stories? Does she approve or disapprove of it? Is adultery necessarily bad? Does it necessarily deserve forgiveness?

8. In “Regrets Only,” Laurence, a gay man, seeks to set his dying mother’s mind at ease about his sexual identity by introducing her to a fake girlfriend. Was this a good idea on any level? What effect did this deception have on him? What did it have on his friend who poses as the girlfriend? What did she learn from their shared kiss—about herself, about him, about her marriage?

9. George in “White Dwarf” says, “Men don’t talk.” But in many of these stories, men do talk—some reluctantly, in response to women forcing them, and often frankly, openly, even heartlessly (“Take This Quiz,” “Martin’s Letter to Nan,” “White Dwarf”). What do they say? And what do you think about it? Do you think men and women communicate differently, as Berg suggests? What is your experience in the ongoing dialogue between men and women?

10. “Martin’s Letter to Nan” is the last story Elizabeth Berg wrote in Ordinary Life, yet it sits in the middle of the book. Why do you think she arranged the stories in the way that she did, with the title story first, and this story in the middle?

11. Berg says that the writing of “Martin’s Letter to Nan” was “fun.” What, do you suppose, made it fun for her? Is her sense of fun communicated to the reader? If so, how?

12. What does the thief in “The Thief” steal? Why do you think Jonathan Hansen picked out Kate Conway to rob?What happened between him and Kate Conway? Should she have called the police?

13. Kate, the narrator of “One Time at Christmas, in My Sister’s Bathroom,” is at a crisis point in her relationship with her incommunicative, critical father, Sam. Everybody else in her family seems to take Sam in stride, so why does Kate have such trouble with him? When Kate goes into the bathroom and cries, what is she crying about? What happens during the course of time Kate spends in that bathroom? What has changed by the time she’s left it?

14. Sarah Harris in “The Matchmaker” is eleven, in fullblown adolescence, see-sawing between childhood and adulthood and trying, step-by-step, to make her own way in the world. What does she do that’s childlike? When does she step into an adult role? How does she feel about her growing personal power?

15. In the story “What Stays,” a mother is forced to leave her family for treatments at a mental hospital. Lizzy, her daughter, sees and describes more of the situation than she can really understand. How does Berg’s technique—using what is called “an unreliable first person narrator”—add to the impact of this story? What do we readers understand that the child Lizzie doesn’t? How would the story be different if told from the father’s point of view? From the older sister’s point of view? From the mother’s point of view?

16. “Today’s Special” was the first short story that Elizabeth Berg wrote, yet it is placed last in this book. Why do you think she did that? What are the concerns and elements in “Today’s Special” that Berg returns to, expands,and elaborates on in other stories? How have her interests and technique changed?

17. If you had to choose a favorite story in this collection which would it be? What are the elements of the story that most appealed to you? Which story did you find least engaging?


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