As soon as I hear that Elizabeth Berg has written a new novel, I want to jump right into it, savor the lives, the conversations, the wry humor, the secrets women say to each other. And as I am drawn into Helen Ames' life in Berg's latest novel, Home Safe, I again find her expertise at revealing a life caught up by grief and inaction.
Not that we fall in love right away with Helen Ames' character. To the contrary, this almost-60 woman, a successful novelist (like Berg), widowed almost a year, is now unable to put words to paper as she stares gloomily at her computer and, with little else to do, continues to meddle in the life of her 27-year-old daughter.
"Mom, Mom, Mom," her accomplished daughter Tessa wails at Helen's latest scheme to take over her thoughts and her life.
"Helen, Helen," her closest friend and confidant Midge laments. "Think about it first."
But Helen is still mourning, unable to work, allowing mail and telephone messages to pile up, eating badly, going over conversations she had with her husband during their many years of marriage. Berg writes: "Without him or the practice of laying out words on a page, she feels now that she spends her days rattling around inside herself; that whereas she used to be a whole and happy woman, now she is in many pieces of battered self, slung together in a sack of skin."
Helen Ames goes on — childishly and even whiny at times (not terribly attractive in a grown woman). Recalling when her husband wanted to teach her to change the oil in her car: "Not now, I'm wearing white pants," but "not now" became an accumulation of things she didn't want to do: change light bulbs and fuses, know where the water turn-off valve was located when her shower begins to leak.
There's mystery. Helen's accountant tells her a large part of the money set aside for retirement was withdrawn by her husband. Discovering this discrepancy takes up a good portion of the novel and takes Helen from her Midwest home to San Francisco, an interesting new man in her life (maybe) and the source of the missing money.
Berg incorporates some of her own writing exercises from her nonfiction book, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True, as Helen teaches a writing class for adults. As she watched the class take notes, "She becomes aware of some kind of spreading warmth inside her. At first she is alarmed, wondering what that is. But then she recognizes it. Happiness."
Helen Ames is Every Woman (albeit with lots of money). She has many foibles. Some of them she connects with: spoiled in ways by her husband, lonely, controlling, indecisive, stubborn and, most of all, vulnerable. In a word, she is lost as many women have been at one time or another in their lives — widowed too early, unable to continue the only work she knows: writing. Like all of us who have been overwhelmed by circumstances we cannot control, Helen is learning and, yes, perhaps even growing up.
Home Safe is a beautifully wrought story of a woman disconnected from herself. Berg allows her characters to develop through their impressive dialogues and their inner thoughts and monologues. They are human. And in the end, Helen Ames has much to teach us.
Rachel Pollack is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.