Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg

I was worried that I might find this book lessened, somehow, with the years. I haven't actually read it for a long time. Maybe since high school, maybe shortly after. I can't remember. Which turned out to be a good thing.

I was wrong to worry. I still love it, and it is still as luminous, joyous and sweet as I remember.

The story, nominally, follows Lainey (Elaine Berman) as she works her way through a life irrevocably changed by the fact that her husband is in a coma. She has two young daughters, and a best friend next door. Lainey's world revolves around her children, her husband and her neighbour, and we get to know them intimately through her eyes. And then there are the incidental characters, the nurses and the other patients, the other patients' families. Berg colours each of them in language so economical that it is incredible how very real they seem, even the least of them. And there is the setting -- Lainey's house being the location that takes on character-like qualities itself.

This is, first and foremost, a love story. And it's a story about ordinary people trying to make things happen and make life work. It is one of the most wonderful stories about human beings I have ever read.

I want to be Lainey. I am not as good as Lainey, or as optimistic, or as observant. She makes a brilliant, familiar, engaging narrator for us to enter her story. Lainey isn't perfect, but she is amazing. I love her voice and it amazes me how quickly her voice becomes mine, in my head. It's astonishing how quickly I can take Lainey in and make her a part of me. I do have a tendency to adopt a book's style of narration, or speech. With this book it takes a paragraph only for Lainey to be in my mind, speaking my thoughts to me. I don't mind at all. Here's a sample:

The woman I work with in the front, Dolly, is in love with him. She's full-time, she's worked with Frank for twenty-three years, and I don't think that he knows how she feels. He's married, happily; Dolly's shy and careful. She wears, with no sense of irony, pearl-decorated glasses chains and cardigan sweaters buttoned at the top. She's so happy when Frank's on the phone and can't get his own coffee. She carries it in to him as though it's her heart on a silver platter, which of course it is.

Lainey then has an extended fantasy about what her own life would be as a truck driver, brought on by reminiscing about how she likes paying the trucking invoices. The whole book is like this; simple and gentle, with Lainey as our filter for experiencing the world. She is kind and optimistic, and she notices everything. These are wonderful things in a first-person narrator.

There are a few instances where the book slips from sweet to saccharine and then further to cliché, but these are relatively few and far between. It is the kind of book set in a world and populated by people that the reader feels are probably too good to be true, but she can hope. And some of it is so honest and familiar that the reader knows that the pieces that matter are real.


Ana S. said...

I also tend to worry that favourite books I haven't read in a long time won't quite live up to my memory of them, but it's so good to be wrong.

This sounds like something I'd enjoy. You had me with "It is one of the most wonderful stories about human beings I have ever read."

Unknown said...

The strange thing is, even though I read this book probably close to five or six years ago, I haven't read anything else by Elizabeth Berg. I think I might be a little afraid that her other stuff won't match up. I've got plans to take something else of hers with me on vacation, so we'll see...