Sunday, September 10, 2017

"The Year of Pleasures" by Elizabeth Berg: Charm with a Bite

"The buzzer on the stove sounded. I took the pie out and put it on a cooking rack, closed my eyes, and leaned in to smell. Then I headed upstairs to find something to wear tonight. I would bathe, rest, dress, and go to search out the company of others, bearing the gift of fruit in pastry. 

"What did we do here but pull ourselves along in this fashion? Never mind our various life circumstances, what I believed was that we had all been flung into the water without having been taught to swim. We ate, we slept, we formed our kaleidoscopic relationships and marched ever forward.

"We licked chocolate from our fingers. We arranged flowers in vases.  We inspected our backsides when tried on new clothes.  We gave ourselves over to art.  We elected officials and complained. We stood up for home runs.

"We marked life passages in ceremonies we attended with impatience and pride... We felt at times that perhaps we really were visitors from another planet. We occasionally wondered if it was true that each of us was making everything up.

"But this was a wobbly saucer; this was thinking we could not endure; we went back to our elegant denial of unbreachable isolation, to refusing the lesson of being born alone and dying that way, too.

"We went back to loving, to eating, to sleeping, to marching and marching and marching along."   

This passage is from  the novel "The Year of Pleasures" by Elizabeth Berg, the September 2017 book selection for my local public library book club.

I hadn't looked forward much to reading this slim volume, and regarded it as fluff, aimed women of a certain age. And it is, for the most part.  I usually read literary classics and current best-sellers, and non-fiction, often biographies or related to environmental or political topics. 

But I liked this charming novel more than I expected, largely because the author appeals often to the senses... taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch.  Reading "The Year of Pleasures" was a relaxing, sensory experience.

Elizabeth Berg can also dazzle with descriptions, such as this paragraph on page 78:
"The mantel clock struck five, startling me from my reverie... I moved to the kitchen window and watched the movement of clouds across the sky, then the lazy revolutions of a falling maple seed just outside the glass. It looked like a tiny pair of discarded angels wings, browned with age."
Like a squeeze of sour lemon in a hot cup of soothing tea, though, author Berg also startles the reader, from time to time, with sharply acidic notes... the bitchy girlfriend of a lovely young man; bitter disappointment when her late husband's written legacies are meaningless mumbo-jumbo; the passage above that belies puzzlement at the meaning of life. 

Just beneath the pretty words and images of this book float anxiety, bite, and a touch of bile.  That is what makes "The Year of Pleasures" interesting.  Not just the sensory experience...Life is not merely a freshly baked pie, "the gift of fruit in pastry."

Clever book. Clever author and very smart editor. Don't judge this book only by its delicious cover.