Excerpted from Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg. Copyright © 1997 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Berg
Question: In the beginning of the book, you explain to your readers that you lost a very important friend to breast cancer, and that part of the reason you wrote Talk Before Sleep was to personalize the experience of losing someone close to you. How was writing this book different from writing your other novels? Was it harder to write about something so close to your heart, or easier, in its own way?
Elizabeth Berg: I never meant to write about the experience of losing a good friend to breast cancer when I was going through it. But after it was over, I realized that although something deeply sad had happened, something truly beautiful also had. And I wanted to write a tribute to that–to the worth and salvation of women’s friendships.We are very good at denying this, but the truth is that we are all terminal. If, at the time of our deaths, we can be surrounded by the kind of love and loyalty my friend enjoyed, we will be lucky indeed. The book was difﬁcult to write for the obvious reason: it evoked a lot of painful memories. But it also brought back a lot of happy ones.And most importantly, it let me sound the alarm about breast cancer: it continues to claim too many lives daily, and far too little money is spent on researching ways to prevent and cure this illness.
Q: On the surface, Ann and Ruth seem like total opposites, yet these woman grow to become best friends.Are they really so different, at their core? Do you think their differences strengthened their friendship? Do you have women in your life who are very different from you, but still wonderful friends?
EB: In some ways, you could say that each woman acts out the other’s fantasies. But Ruth is wilder than Ann, braver, less concerned with what people think of her– the two are different from one another. Of course they share many of the same passions,as good friends do.And in the end, I think they want many of the same things: recognition and appreciation for the unique individuals that they are, for one thing.As for my “real life,” yes, I do have friends who are different from me, and I ﬁnd it refreshing being around them.
Q:Your novel captures the pain of losing a loved one, but also highlights the humor and absurdity of everyday life. How did you manage to balance these very different aspects of the story? Was it hard for you to include humor in a novel that is, at the root, so deeply sad?
EB: I ﬁnd life a mix of humor and pathos, and all my books reﬂect that to one degree or another.The truth is that I had a bad health scare before my friend got sick. I thought I was going to have to go through chemotherapy and lose all my hair.And I told her that when I was bald I didn’t want to wear wigs–I wanted to wear funny hats. I told her I wanted an aviator hat like Thelonious Monk wears on the cover of his album Solo Monk. I told her that I wanted her to treat me the same as she always did, to not “protect” me. I told her I wanted her to always tell me the truth. So a lot of Ruth’s attitude toward cancer and mortality is really my own. My real friend had a wonderful sense of humor, however–she was really smart and really beautiful and really funny.And her sense of humor never left her.
Q: The women in this novel are such wonderful characters. I love L.D., Sarah, Helen, and, of course, Ann and Ruth. How did you create such rich, loving characters? Are these friends like the women you know? Wish you knew?
EB: L.D. is completely made up, and I think she was put in because I was wishing for someone like her at the time. As for the other characters, some are inspired by real people, but they are all very much ﬁctionalized.The friends in my real life do tend to be smart and funny and creative. I am lucky!
Q:The centerpiece of this novel is the strength of female friendship, but through Ann and Ruth, you also explore the complications of marriage and children. Ann and Ruth have very different husbands, Joe and Eric, and wonderful children, Meggie and Michael. How does family play into the novel? Are friends sometimes as close–if not closer–than family?
EB: I think family is secondary in the novel, except to the extent that it very much matters to both women. But the focus is mainly on the relationship between Ann and Ruth. As for who’s closer to whom, that’s a tough call. You may feel you can be yourself around your friends more than your children, for example. But if your child needs you, you’re there–your children come before your friends. I think these women understood that.They both chafed at family obligations, but they both were grounded and comforted by them.
1. What were your ﬁrst impressions of Ann and Ruth? Who do you identify with more? Who do you think would be more fun to be around? Who would make a better friend?
2. What did you think of Elizabeth Berg’s decision to construct her novel by going back and forth between the past and present? What did you like,or dislike,about this narrative structure?
3. How would the book have been different if Ruth was the narrator, instead of Ann? Would the story have been the same? Why or why not, and in what ways?
4. As she reﬂects on the male/female dynamic, Ann thinks, “The truth is, we usually only show our unhappiness to another woman. I suppose this is one of our problems. And yet it is also one of our strengths” (page 29). What do you think about this statement? Is it true for Ann and the other women in this novel? Is it true for you and your friends?
5. Berg gives us such rich, vivid, eclectic female characters.What did you make of L.D, Sarah, and Helen? How do these women, along with Ann and Ruth, interact as a group? Do they seem like women you would like to spend time with? Why or why not?
6. Ann and Ruth have many discussions about Ruth’s extramarital affairs. Ann conﬁdes that she has thought about cheating, but that she worries she would get caught. Ruth tells her, “But after the ﬁrst lie, it gets so much easier. It’s disappointing, in a way, how easy it is” (page 47). Is Ruth right, does lying get easier as you go along? What do you think Ann really thinks about her best friend’s behavior? Do you think Ann would every cheat on Joe?
7. Are Ann and Ruth really so different? Ann tells Ruth, “I mean, you’re my best friend. I admire you. But we’re very different” (page 138). Do you believe her? Or do Ruth and Ann have more in common than they might care to admit? Why are the women hesitant to admit their similarities? Discuss.
8. Ann and Ruth have very different relationships with their husbands, Joe and Eric, and their children, Meggie and Michael. Discuss these relationships and how they help shape the two women.
9. After Ruth reveals a huge secret about her marriage, Ann reﬂects, “How can I love a woman I basically disapprove of?” (page 97) Does Ann really disapprove of Ruth? Why or why not? Have you ever loved someone you didn’t approve of?
10. What did you think of Ruth’s decision to go stay with her brother in Florida, at the end of her life? How did her friends react? How would you have reacted?
11. This novel is unique in that we know what the ending will be before we even start our reading. Was there anything about Ruth’s death that surprised you? Were you upset by the end of the novel? Uplifted? Both?