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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: April 05, 2005
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-456-2
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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In this rich and deeply satisfying novel by the beloved author of The Art of Mending, and Open House, a resilient woman embarks upon an unforgettable journey of adventure, self-discovery, and renewal. 

Betta Nolan moves to a small town after the death of her husband to try to begin anew. Pursuing a dream of a different kind of life, she is determined to find pleasure in her simply daily routines. Among those who help her in both expected and unexpected ways are the ten-year-old boy next door, three wild women friends from her college days, a twenty-year-old who is struggling to find his place in the world, and a handsome man who is ready for love.

Elizabeth Berg's The Year of Pleasuresis about acknowledging the solace found in ordinary things: a warm bath, good food, the beauty of nature, music, friends, and art. "Berg writes with humor and a big heart about resilience, loneliness, love, and hope. And the transcendence that redeems," said Andre Dubus about Durable Goods. And the same could be said about The Year of Pleasures

From the Hardcover edition.


I had been right to want to drive to the Midwest, taking only the back roads. Every time my husband, John, and I had taken a trip more than a few miles away, we’d flown, and had endured the increasingly irritating airport protocols. I’d finally begun to wear what amounted to pajamas so that I wouldn’t have to all but strip before security guards who seemed either worrisomely bored or, equally worrisome, inflated with a mirthful self-importance. It was hard to believe that air travel had ever been considered glamorous, when now what most people felt was a seesawing between anxiety and exasperation. “Well, folks, looks like our time has been pushed back again,” the captain would say, and everyone would shake their heads and snap their newspapers and mutter to their neighbor. And if there was unexpected turbulence, a quivering silence fell.

Now, on this road trip, my mind seemed to uncrinkle, to breathe, to present to itself a cure for a disease it had not, until now, known it had. Rather than the back of an airline seat or endless, identical rest stops on the interstate, I saw farmhouses in the middle of protective stands of trees, silos reaching for the sky, barns faded to the soft red of tomato soup. The weather everywhere stayed stubbornly warm, and people seemed edgily grateful—what could this mean, sixty-degree weather in November? I drove through one small town where old people sat on rockers on front porches and kids tore around corners on bikes and young mothers, jackets tied around their waists, proudly pushed babies in strollers.

I passed white wooden churches, red brick schools, stores with names familiar only to the locals, and movie theaters offering a single choice. I saw cats stationed at living room windows, horses switching tails against clouds of gnats, cows in pastures grouped together like gossips. These scenes seemed imbued with a beauty richer than normal; they seemed so perfect as to have been staged. I felt as though I were driving through a museum full of pastoral bas-reliefs, and I took in the details that way, with wonder and appreciation. That was the tolerable part of my new vulnerability, the positive side of feeling my heart had migrated out of my body to hang on my chest like a necklace.

There was an infinite variety of trees, and I felt ashamed to know the names of so few of them. John and I used to talk about how the current phase of the moon as well as the names of trees and flowers and birds—at least the local ones!—should be front and center in people’s brains; maybe such a connection to nature would help to make us more civilized. But I was as guilty as anyone; the only tree I knew beyond pines and willows and birches was the black locust, and that was because I liked the way John had described the blossoms’ scent: like grape lollipops. I passed massive-trunked trees standing powerful and alone, and imagined how in summer their leafy canopy would provide a gigantic circle of shade. I passed a group of reedy saplings bending like ballerinas in the wind. Willow trees dipped their bare branches into pond water like girls testing the temperature with their toes.

I felt a low and distinct kind of relaxation. Time became real. Nature became real: the woods, the sky, the lakes, the high bluffs and low valleys, the acres of spent fields, the muddy riverbanks. Live photos flashed before me: Here, a construction worker eating a sandwich, one foot up on the bumper of his truck. Here, a woman in curlers loading groceries into her car. Here, a child glimpsed through a kitchen window, standing on a stool to reach into a cupboard; there, a beauty operator giving an old lady a perm.

I saw in a way I never had before the beauty and diversity of our earnest labor on the earth, and also our ultimate separateness. This helped my pain metamorphose into something less personal and more universal, something organic and natural. And that helped give me strength. Someone had to die first. It turned out to be John. Nothing more. Nothing less. What fell to me now, what I was driving toward, was the creation of a new kind of life, minus the ongoing influence of what I had loved and depended upon most in the world. In a way, my situation reminded me of a little girl I’d once seen exiting a roller coaster at a state fair, all wide eyes and pale face and shaky knees. When her brother asked if she’d like to ride again, she said, “Not until I’m way readier.” I felt myself trapped in line for a ride I was not nearly ready for, looking back but moving forward in the only direction I could go.

Mile by mile, the country unfurled before me—in bright morning light, throughout golden afternoons, under the pastel-colored skies of evenings. Once, just outside of Cleveland, when the sky was lavender and the clouds pink, I pulled to the side of the freeway to watch until darkness smudged the colors into night. Land rushed up, then fell away; rushed up, then fell away. I became intimately aware of the lay of the land, felt the rise and fall of it in my stomach as I drove up and down steep hills. I deliberately pushed everything out of my head but what was before me. Still, every now and then a quick thrill raced up my spine in the form of a thought: I am my own again. Sorrow that lay pooled inside me gave over to a kind of exhilaration in those moments; the relief was stunning.

Though impermanent. One night, I checked into a motel at around ten o’clock. Next door, I heard a couple making love. Their sounds were sloppy and slightly hysterical—Drunk, I thought. I turned the radio up loud, ran a bath, and while sitting at the edge of the tub unwrapping the absurdly little bar of soap, I felt the weight of my loss move slowly back into me. After I dried off, I sat before the television and marveled at the drivel that passed for entertainment. I turned it off, finally, then sat at the side of the bed and stared out at nothing. I picked up the telephone and dialed my home number. I heard the characteristic tones, then, The number you have reached has been disconnected. I hung up, closed my eyes, and took in a deep breath. Then I knelt at the side of the bed and pushed my face into my hands.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, I pulled over to a frozen-yogurt stand near the center of a small town that looked particularly attractive to me. A tall, early-thirtyish man waited on me. He was beginning to bald already and had a distressing complexion. But his eyes, as though in compensation, were a brilliant blue. “That’ll be a dollar sixty-five,” he said, handing me the raspberry cone I’d ordered. I pulled two dollars from my wallet and handed them to him, then took a lick of the yogurt. “Delicious,” I said, and smiled at him. He smiled back, hesitantly, then fussed with the register for a long while as I watched, first in mild annoyance, then in sympathy, finally in utter fascination. Eventually, the man turned and called to someone in the back room. “Louise?” he said, apparently too softly, for then he called a bit louder, “Louise?”

“WHAT?” she yelled back.

The man straightened the paper hat on his head. “Could you come out and help me?” he asked. “Please?”

Louise came out to the cash register, scowling. She was wearing a maroon sweat suit and was massively overweight. She wore her hair in a high ponytail. It was beautiful hair, thick and auburn-colored; I concentrated on it while she concentrated on me. Finally, I looked at her face. “Hello,” I said.

She jutted her chin at me. “How you doing.” There was mischief in her eyes.

“Was that you yelling back there?” I asked.

She grinned. “Yeah, that was me, whistling while I work.” She jerked her head toward the man. “This goes on all the livelong day.”

“Oh, well,” I said. “That’s all right.”

“Easy for you to say.” She turned to glare at the man, who studied his shoes. Then she fixed the register and stomped off.

“Okay!” the man said. “Says here I owe you thirty-five cents!” He handed me the change.

I thanked him, then, laughing, said, “Though I think you could have figured that out on your own.”

He looked doubtful.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Don’t you think we’re getting way too dependent on these damn machines?”

Now he looked grateful. “Idn’t it?”

I thanked him again and headed for the door. But I turned back before I opened it. “Could you tell me what town this is?”

He pointed to the floor. “This here town where we’re at now?”


He straightened, made himself taller. “This is Stewart, Illinois, and I’ll tell you what, it’s only forty-nine miles from Chicago. Exactamento. I been here my whole life. It’s a good town, Stewart. Is this what you’re looking for?”

I hesitated, then answered, “Yes.”

As I started to open the door again, I heard him clear his throat and say, “Miss?”

I turned back. He was blushing, but with a kind of borrowed confidence, he said, “Would you like to be on my radio show?”

I tried hard not to let my astonishment show. “You have a radio show?”

“Yes, ma’am, Talk of the Town. I get guests from town on, and we talk. That’s the show.”

I thought of the empty miles I’d driven through to get to this town, the few places of business I’d seen thus far. I didn’t recall anything that looked like it might be—or house—a broadcasting studio. “Where?” I asked.

“Right at WMRZ a few blocks over. It’s above the drugstore. I’ve had Louise on my show—we talked about yogurt: Where has it been and where is it going? Louise liked being on a lot, you can ask her. She got dressed up and everything, got herself a new purse for that show.” He lowered his voice and leaned over the counter to say, “Louise is the one sponsors me. Her bite is way worse than her bark, if you know what I mean.”

I hesitated, then refrained from correcting him. Instead, I said, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.”

“So do you want to be on? I tape every Sunday morning. Six-thirty. You’d have to get up early, but you’re going to church, anyways, just get ready sooner.”

“Well, I . . .”

“You don’t need to answer now,” the man said. “ If you want to do it, just come back and see me here. Or you can call me. My name’s Ed Selwin. My number’s in the book. It’s spelled exactly more or less like it sounds. You can think on it. Just, I figured if you’s moving here, it’d be good to interview you. You being a new person and all.”

“But I . . . did I say I was moving here?”

“Not exactly. I just saw your loaded-up car with out-of-state plates, and then you said this is the town you were looking for . . .”

“I see.”

“And since you’d be a new person here, it’d be interesting to see where you came from and such. Like that. And don’t worry—people get nervous being on the radio, just a natural thing, but I’ll settle you right down.”

“Okay, well . . . I’ll let you know.” I waved goodbye and began licking the quickly melting yogurt. Inside the car, I started the engine, turned on the heat—the weather had finally become seasonally appropriate—and finished eating. I had an odd but familiar feeling inside, a kind of surety without grounding. It was something I often felt as a child, and it drove me to do things very quickly and without regret. I wondered if I should say, Yes, here, this is the place, just like that, and then go in search of somewhere to live. Why not? What had I to lose, really? I was in the middle of the country, as I’d wanted to be. It looked to be a charming little town. And anyway, I wouldn’t mind moving back toward a certain boldness of spirit, a reliance on a kind of luck I’d always enjoyed. I remembered a story I once heard about a couple from a farm in Iowa looking for a place to live in Washington, D.C. They weren’t having any success; everything was incredibly expensive, and to make matters worse, they had three dogs. They became greatly discouraged, and then one day the woman threw up her hands and said, “All right. Let’s just drive ten minutes one way and then turn left. And then drive ten minutes more and turn right. And then ten minutes straight, and if we don’t find something, we’ll give up.” What they drove to was a huge farmhouse just outside the city, and a man was standing outside of it. Feeling more than a little foolish, the couple asked if the man happened to know of anything around for rent. Turned out he had a little house on his property he used for hired hands that was newly vacated. Freshly painted. They could have it for next to nothing if they’d help a bit with chores. And three dogs? No problem. John once said, “Sometimes serendipity is just intention, unmasked.” I think I answered him with some sort of vague Mmm-hmm, right, hidden as I was behind the Globe’s book review. But I’d always remembered it. And now I thought I knew what he’d meant. When you were willing to say what you really wanted, something just might help you along.

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

About Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg - The Year of Pleasures

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


Q: What kind of kid were you? Are any of your characters reflective of yourself at a younger age?

Elizabeth Berg: A dreamy, oversensitive type with a powerful imagination. Once, when I was around four or five, I was bored and I was bugging my mother, asking her over and over to play with me. Finally, in exasperation, she said, “Go outside and count cars!” I did exactly that—quite happily, as it turned out. I remember it to this day: sitting on a stone wall, counting the cars that passed. Now, this in itself is not interesting. But precisely because it is not, it allowed my imagination to go to work. I counted cars and made up little stories in my head. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I learned from that day forward that there is much in the mind to play with. I was also a lover of animals, a lover of fairy tales, and a ferocious eater. After everyone had finished eating and left the table, I would go around and finish what was left on all their plates. I kept a diary. I had serious crushes. I cried on the last days of school, mostly because I felt sorry for the teachers—I thought they’d miss us. I loved the Three Stooges. I still do—nyuk, nyuk. As for my characters, yes, in some respects a few of them are reflective of my younger self. I was an outsider, for example, as Katie is (Durable Goods, Joy School, True to Form). I still am one, really. I’m also like my younger characters in that I’m drawn to and instructed by nature.

Q: Who was your first love?

EB: Billy Harris. Fourth grade. What a swell dresser. He had some sort of class job that required him to write on the blackboard every morning. I would stare at his back and sigh and write “Mrs. Billy Harris” on my tablet. He never looked my way. He, like every other boy in the class, was in love with the raven-haired Cynthia. All the girls were in love with Cynthia, too—she was really, really cute. On Valentine’s Day, her box was stuffed.

Q: When and how did you decide to become a writer?

EB: Oh, well, I was always a writer. I think writers are born, not made. Writers are watchers, note takers, inclined to have a need to express things by writing them down, whether they try to get published or not. But I decided to try in 1985, when I was thirty-five. I sent an essay to a magazine and won a contest. After that, I wrote nonfiction for magazines for ten years, then moved into short stories, then into novels.

Q: Where do you find the inspiration for your books? If you haven’t experienced something you are writing about, how do you make your stories seem so real?

EB: Inspiration is everywhere. In life experiences, in the newspaper, in snatches of conversations, in nature, in people’s grocery baskets. I think the most important quality for a writer to have is empathy. So even though we haven’t always experienced what we write about, we can imagine what it’s like. That’s our job, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they do and let the reader feel it, too.

Q: What’s a typical writing day like for you? Do you have a certain process or do you just sit down and write?

EB: I like to write first thing, before I’ve been crushed by the newspaper or distracted by anything else. I like to still feel connected to the dream state, to the great unconscious. I write quickly, straight out, not editing as I go—that I save for the next day. I write for about three to four hours, quite intensely, and then walk the dog, go to the post office, make dinner. I don’t have any certain process; writing for me is a highly intuitive thing.

Q: What does the room where you write look like?

EB: It’s a bedroom that’s been converted into an office with a builtin white desk and many, many bookshelves. I have my book jackets framed and mounted on the walls, and there are many photos of family and friends here and there. I have three fetish stones to the left of my computer, looking out in three directions. At my feet is a dog bed, where my golden retriever, Homer, often lies. I have a comfortable chair with a hassock to sit in when I read or edit. I have quotes taped to my computer. One says, “Action is less important than mood, and mood is summed up by the Japanese word aware.” I have no idea where I got it.

Q: Would you ever like to write a children’s book? What about diving into another genre?

EB: I would love to write a children’s book and will, someday. As for another genre, I just wrote historical fiction: The Handmaid and the Carpenter is a Christmas book about Mary and Joseph that will be out in October 2006, I believe.

Q: What do you most want readers of your books to come away with?

EB: A feeling of connection. And of satisfaction. A lot of readers tell me, “You see right into my life,” and they like that. They say it makes them feel seen and heard and appreciated. I am gratified, too, that many people appreciate the detail in my novels—they, too, understand the worth of the “small things.” I’ve met a lot of my readers and I really love them—they tend to be sensitive, generous people, and they tend to laugh and cry easily, like me. And they also bring me recipes, which will be very useful when I finally write the cookbook I’d like to write.

Q: How do you balance being such a prolific writer and having a “normal” life?

EB: It’s a struggle, quite honestly. I’m always working on something. I take weekends off most of the time to remember that there’s more to life than metaphors.

Q: If you could visit three of your favorite authors, who would they be?

EB: Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, and Ellen Gilchrist. If I could visit dead authors, I’d head right over to E. B. White, though I’m so in awe of him I’d probably just sit at his feet and weep. He’s the master of clarity, of understated humor, of palatable political conviction.

Q: What are your friends like? You write so beautifully about friendship, especially female friendship. What do your friends bring to your life and your writing?

EB: They save me. They are open, warm, funny, creative, amazingly generous. They tell me great stories. (Some of them make it into my books.) They teach me perspective and the worth of kindness. They are very wise and compassionate. I can ask them anything or tell them anything.

Q: What are you most afraid of?

EB: That we will become increasingly more uncivilized and the world will destroy itself before my grandchild has a chance to live a long life. Also, I fear centipedes and raw liver.

Q: What kind of person are you?

EB: Overly idealistic. Forgetful. Sentimental. A person who must pet every dog I pass and attempt to engage him or her in conversation. Someone who is uncomfortable in fancy restaurants and happy in diners that are frequented by “characters.” I’m a lover of flowers—I need them; they’re always in my house. I’m passionate about things to the point of annoyance. I’m not always a good listener. I don’t have any mechanical skills and wish I did. I’m a good cook. I’m a better eater. I make my bed every day. It’s all I can do to not make them in hotels. I carry a soft hankie in my purse that is too pretty to use. I would like to go to Japan. I’m deeply shy, but I put on a good show to overcome it. And self-critical. And introverted. Which will make you understand why I now feel I’ve said far too much.

Q: What projects are next for you?

EB: Okay . . . Adapting The Pull of the Moon for the stage.Writing an original play. Writing a screenplay. Doing another short-story collection and two more novels. And then retiring so I can read a thousand books a year. And cook. And walk around the city and the country. And spend more time with my daughters. And take driving trips on back roads. And fiddle around in the garden. And watch movies in the afternoon. And learn Japanese. And take voice lessons. And sit in on physics classes at the University of Chicago. And get another dog. Or two.

Q: Finally, if you were to plan a “year of pleasures,” what would you like to see or do?

EB: See above.



Praise for Elizabeth Berg

“The day you open this book you will miss all your appointments, because . . . you will read it straight through. . . . Berg’s writing is to literature what Chopin’s études are to music–measured, delicate, and impossible to walk away from until their completion.”
Entertainment Weekly, about Range of Motion

“Lyrical from start to finish . . . Shaped by Berg’s artistic talents, these stories of ordinary people in ordinary situations are anything but ordinary.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, about Ordinary Life

“Truth rings forth clearly from every page. Berg captures the way women think–and especially the way they talk to other women–as well as any writer I can think of.”
The Charlottesville Observer, about Talk Before Sleep

“Berg’s lovely novels examine how some families grasp blindly at the ties that hold them together and some pluck them apart. Mending is no exception.”
Entertainment Weekly, about The Art of Mending

“Elizabeth Berg is one of those rare souls who can play with truths as if swinging across the void from one trapeze to another.”
Joan Gould, about Talk Before Sleep

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Betta’s departure from Boston at the beginning of the book is abrupt, even rushed. Is her choice to move so quickly a good one? What is she running away from, and what is she running toward?

2. In the early pages of the book, while driving to the Midwest with all of her belongings in tow, Betta finds an unexpected freedom and relaxation. What does moving, or even driving, have to do with this release Betta feels?

3. Moving to a new place fulfills a promise Betta had made to John, but she makes the move alone. Discuss the ways that Betta finds
strength and independence in her new life. In the moments when that strength falters, how does she cope?

4. Do you think Betta has made a mistake in forsaking her friends for the intensity of a lifetime with John? How do you balance the intimacy of a partner and children with female friends in your own life?

5. John and Betta never had children. Do you think the intense closeness they shared would have been diminished or improved if they had been able to have children? Would Betta have been as close to John if she had to find a place in her life for children? And would her grief have been helped if she had had someone else to share her loss with?

6. Betta hopes to love John and to be loved by him after his death. Does she succeed? Do you think love can transcend death?

7. Betta refers to a belief that one can be closer to someone after death than before. What does she mean when she says this? Have
you experienced this in your own life?

8. Do you agree with the philosopher Kierkegaard’s suggestion that no matter how many years have passed, when good friends meet
again, they will simply pick up where they left off? How does this play out in the novel? In your own life?

9. Is Betta’s relationship with Tom doomed from the start? Why or why not?

10. Why do Betta and Matthew become friends? Do they want the same things from the friendship? Do you agree with the decision Betta makes, to rent the room in his apartment?

11. Betta says there are times when food is not just food. She uses food to heal, to comfort, and to seduce. Are there other ways in which food is important in this novel? In your own life, what roles do food and cooking play?

12. Finding joy in small things is important to Betta, and she uses joy as a vehicle for change. Do you agree with her philosophy? If so,
what small things bring you great happiness? If not, why not?

13. What does Betta’s store symbolize? How does opening the store change her personality and emotions? How important is taking
chances when creating a new life? Have you ever undertaken a similar project?

14. A major theme of the novel is the transformation of tragedy into joy. Could Betta have found this particular kind of joy without the tragedy of losing John? How does the relationship between tragedy and joy operate, in both the book and your own life?

Elizabeth Berg

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