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  • Written by Elizabeth Berg
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  • Talk Before Sleep
  • Written by Elizabeth Berg
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Talk Before Sleep

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A Novel

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


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 23, 2011
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76340-2
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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"Until that moment, I hadn't realized how much I'd been needing to meet someone I might be able to say everything to."

They met at a party.  It was hate at first sight.  Ruth was far too beautiful, too flamboyant.  Not at all Ann's kind of person.  Until a chance encounter in the bathroom led to an alliance of souls.  Soon they were sharing hankies during the late showing of "Sophie's Choice," wolfing down sundaes sodden with whipped cream, telling truths of marriage, mortality, and love, secure in a kind of intimacy no man could ever know.  Only best friends understand devil's food cake for breakfast when nothing else will do.  After years of shared secrets, guilty pleasures, family life and divorce, they face a crisis that redefines the meaning of friendship and unconditional love.

From the Paperback edition.


This morning, before I came to Ruth's house, I made yet another casserole for my husband and my daughter. Meggie likes casseroles while Joe only endures them, but they are all I can manage right now. I put the dish in the refrigerator, with a note taped on it telling how long to cook it, and at what temperature, and that they should have a salad, too.
Next I did a little laundry--washed Meggie's favorite skirt, then laid it on top of the dryer and pressed the pleats in with the flat of my hand. I love doing this because I love the smell of laundry soap and the memory it brings of lying outside on warm days, watching my mother peg huge white bedsheets onto the clothesline. Those sheets glowed with the light blue color white clothes radiate when they are extremely clean. My mother seemed to be fighting with them sometimes, muttering at them as best she could through the wooden clothespins she held in her mouth, insisting that they stay anchored in one place while they pulled and yanked to be free, their wet snapping sounds a protest. I always thought maybe we should let them go. Maybe they had a mission. Maybe the sheets were really people who had started all over again, come back on some low rung and now were ready to fly up to heaven for a promotion--say to a paramecium. I viewed all things on the earth as equal, in terms of the Grand Scheme. Vice presidents and river rocks had nothing up on each other. So the cotton fibers of a bedsheet could easily return as a simple form of water life, or, for that matter, as a movie star who drove white motorcycles through the glamorous hills of Hollywood.
I also like doing laundry for the feeling of connection it brings me, especially now, when I see my family too little, when most of my time is taken up with things they have no part of. With my hand on Meggie's skirt, I can see her small, keyhole-shaped knees, the sliding-down socks she wears, the nearly worn-out sneakers she won't let me replace. I see her schoolgirl blouses and the half-heart necklace she likes to wear every day lately, advertising the fact that she is someone's best friend. And then, saving the best for last, I see her face, her still slightly rounded cheeks, her stick-out ears, her gorgeous red hair and matching freckles. She has just learned to make her own ponytail, and she stands softly grunting at the mirror in the morning until the lumps are gone--or nearly so. I can't attend to these small things now--sometimes I sleep at Ruth's and am not there in the morning and Meggie goes to school with messy hair; and with questionable color combinations, no doubt. She's lucky she's only nine; it doesn't really matter yet. Her bangs need cutting, her toenails too, probably--Joe can't keep up with these everyday details and still work the number of hours he's required to. I know that eventually all will return to normal at my house, and then we will feel better--and worse, too, of course.
For now, I roll out piecrust, let myself be soothed by the sound of low-voiced interviews or oldies on the radio. I have learned so much lately about the salvation to be found in caretaking, whatever form that caring takes.
Today, while I was rushing around the kitchen making dinner at seven-thirty in the morning, Meggie asked, "Is Ruth your only best friend?"
"Yes," I said, surprised at the evenness of my tone.
"Oh." She sighed softly. "I'm sorry for you, Mommy."
"I know you are."
"Was she always your best friend?"
"Did you have one before her?"
"I guess so," I told her, then sent her off to school. And then I thought about Carol Conroy. The first time I made a promise with my whole heart, it was to Carol Conroy, and it required me to take care of her rabbit, Ecclesiastes. Carol, who liked very much the sound of words she found in the Bible, was leaving our small New England town to visit Disneyland for ten entire days. My jealousy was mitigated somewhat by the importance of the task she had assigned me. "You have to feed this rabbit and change his water every day," Carol told me solemnly. "And on every third day, you have to clean up his poops. It's not too bad unless he gets sick. But you have to do it even if he gets sick! Now, promise." I stood up straight and promised with my whole heart--I could feel it straining with earnestness--because I loved Carol Conroy in the way that ten-year-old girls do love each other, with a fierce, raggedy flame destined to go out. I vowed to do everything she said unless I died.
Ecclesiastes did get sick--maybe because of some licorice I fed him--and I ended up having to clean his cage several times a day for four days straight. The rabbit's illness only endeared him to me. I didn't resent him; I wanted to help him; and I felt gilded when he recovered. Years later, I would say it was Ecclesiastes that prompted me to become a nurse. And now, years after becoming a nurse--in fact, years after having left the profession to take care of my family, I have again made a promise with my whole heart, again out of love for my best friend. Only this time my friend's name is Ruth. And this time the flame is steady, in no danger of going out. I would say it is of the eternal variety.
So now it is ten-thirty in the morning, and Ruth is in the bathtub, and I am straightening out her bed. She has a white eyelet dust ruffle, white sheets with eyelet trim, a blue-and-white striped comforter, Laura Ashley. There are four fat goosedown pillows, each covered with beautiful embroidered pillowcases, white on white. There is a stack of magazines piled high on the floor and a collection of crystals on the bedside table: rose quartz, amethyst, and a clear white one with a delicate, fractured pattern running through it. They are not working. She is dying, though we don't know when. We are waiting. She is only forty-three and I am only forty-two and all this will not stop being surprising.
I hear her calling my name and I crack open the bathroom door. "Yes?"
"Could you come in here?" Her voice is a little shaky and I realize this is the first time I have heard her sound afraid.
I sit on the floor beside her, rest my arms along the edge of the tub to lean in close, though what I am thinking is that I ought to get in with her. She has used bubble bath and the sweet smell rises up warm and nearly palpable between us. Tahitian Ginger. The label on the bottle features happy natives who do not believe in Western medicine. The bubbles have mostly disappeared; I can see the outline of her body in the water. She is half swimming, turning slightly side to side, hips rising languidly up and down. Her breasts are gone.
"What's up?" I say.
She squeezes her bath sponge over her head. She is almost bald, but not quite. Dark strands of hair cling to the bottom of her head and her neck. Duck fluff, we call it. I told her to shave her head and she'd look great, like a movie star, like a rock singer. It's the latest rage, I told her. "Nah," she said. "What's left, I want to keep. It has sentimental value."
"I was wondering what happens when I die," she says now. "I was thinking, how are they sure? Are they really sure? I mean, what if I get buried alive?"
"They're sure," I tell her. "You sort of . . . shut down. Your heart stops, and your breathing. Certain reflexes disappear, you know, like the pupils in your eyes don't react." She watches me, holding absolutely still, looking like a colorized sculpture of herself. I sigh, then add, "And you get cold, you get real cold, okay? Your skin doesn't feel warm anymore. They're absolutely sure."
"Oh," she says. "Okay. Just checking." She is relieved; you can see it in the uncreasing of her forehead, in the loosening to normal of the area around her mouth. "Wash my back, will you?"
She sits up and rests her forehead on her raised knees. I bump the washcloth over newly revealed bones, the delicate scapulas, the orderly line of vertebrae. "I'm becoming exoskeletal," she says, her voice muffled. "I'm turning into a lobster. Maybe when we die we go back incrementally. You know, a little to the sea, then on to the heavens." She thinks a moment, then says, "I was just lying in here and I felt kind of tired and . . . weird, and then I thought, wait--is this it? I mean, how will I know?" She leans back, frowns. "Is that the same question I just asked? Am I making any sense? Do I keep asking the same goddamn question?"
I'd been making dinner. I had The Oprah Winfrey Show on the little kitchen TV. The phone rang and I wiped my hands on my apron and answered it and she said, "It's in my brain."
"No," I say, "it's not the same question. It's different. First you wanted to know how they'd know; now you want to know how you'll know. Different question entirely. You will know, though. You won't be the same person you are now when it happens. You'll be, I don't know . . . wiser."
"Okay." She stands up, asks for a towel, tells me she's done.
"I should think so," I say. "You've been in there for an hour."
"Have I? Jesus, I thought it was about five minutes."
"That's okay. I was having a good time waiting for you. I was reading your diary."
"Find anything good?"
"The sex stuff. That's good. But it's all bullshit."
"You wish."
I help her into a nightgown: white, white-lace trim, thin strands of ribbon hanging down the front.
She climbs in bed, pulls the covers up. She is tired, so pale. But her blue eyes are still beautiful and her face such a perfect shape you could walk into the room and see her and first just be jealous.
"I suppose it could be tonight, couldn't it?" she says. "God, it really could."
I was with her, sitting in the corner of the examining room, while she read questions off her list. She was pushing to know exactly how and when. She's that way: if she'd ever had to go to confession, she'd have torn down the curtain separating her and the priest. "Hey! Look at me when I'm talking to you," she would have told him.
Her oncologist was wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, a beautiful Italian silk tie and a gold Rolex watch. He was handsome and very sad, leaning up against the little sink in the room with his arms crossed over his chest and one leg crossed over the other, too. Obviously, this was too much for him. I think when he first met Ruth he fell in love with her and, guiltless, stayed there--though at an antiseptic distance Ruth regretted. Falling in love with her was a liability that came with being a man around her. Finally, he said, "All right, yes. It could be any time. Depending on how it happens. If it's from brain metastasis, it could be at any time."
Of course she has other options. Respiratory failure, say, from lung metastasis. Liver failure from the metastasis there. Think of those cartoons where people are run over by steamrollers and then get up and walk around. You'll be seeing Ruth. She put a new message on her answering machine the other day--she thought the old one sounded too sad. I stood behind her and watched her do it, her back so straight. The only thing that revealed what was really happening is that one of her feet rapidly tapped the floor the whole time she was talking. "It's me," she said. "I can't come to the phone right now. But leave me a message and probably you should make it a good one, okay? Okay, 'bye." She says "okay" all the time, Ruth. Before, we'd be making plans to go somewhere. "Okay, okay, so I'll meet you there at seven, okay?" she'd say.
"Will you stay here tonight?" she asks now.
"Of course." I hope my face doesn't reflect any of the ambivalence I feel. Another night away. I haven't paid bills. I need to call my mother. Joe and I haven't had sex in over six weeks. I feel sometimes as if I'm opening a too-full closet and shoving something else in, then leaning against the door so it won't burst open.
Later, when she is asleep, I'll call home. "Please understand," I'll say.
Ruth pats the bed. "Here, take a load off. Should we watch a movie?"
I stretch out beside her. "I'd rather talk."
"Okay," she says. "But mostly you. I get too short of breath. It's getting worse. Have you noticed?"
She nods. "Yeah."
"What should I talk about?" I ask.
"Me," she says. "Tell me a story about me. If I seem to fall asleep, make sure I'm not dead. I think you have to call somebody if I am, right?"
"Right. The coroner."
"Yes. And call Michael, too. You be the one to tell him. I don't want his father to. He'll fuck it up. But if I'm just sleeping, don't get offended, okay?"
"Okay," I say. "All right: the story of Ruth. So to speak. Well, the first time I saw you, you really pissed me off."
"You were jealous," she says.
"I know," I say. "Everybody was. But also you were being a pain in the ass."
"Exactly wrong," she says. "You're projecting again."
"Exactly right," I agree.
Elizabeth Berg|Author Q&A

About Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg - Talk Before Sleep

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

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.



"You'll want to give a copy to  every good woman friend you have." -- The Charlotte Observer

"Entertaining, finely crafted Elizabeth Berg tackles serious  issues with grace" -- San Francisco Chronicle

"Tender and irreverant by turns, it offers mature intelligent and  buoyant spirit, like a very good  friend." -- Houston Post

From the Paperback edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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?

Elizabeth Berg

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