Range Of Motion

Open House by Elizabeth Berg
(Random House, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-375-50603-9
With a good Elizabeth Berg novel, you feel as though you are there in the narrator's shoes, feeling her emotions. You might have to remind yourself that the events of the book are happening to a fictional character. Berg's writing, at its best, is full of insights into the small moments of life that ring absolutely true. Fortunately, her eighth novel, Open House, is her strongest effort since Range of Motion and Talk Before Sleep. I'm glad to see it receive national exposure as Oprah's Book Club latest pick.

Samantha Morrow is facing the end of her marriage after a dozen or so years of domestic contentment, if not bliss, with her husband David and their 11-year old son, Travis. Lacking any marketable skills, Sam decides to rent out several rooms of her home to strangers. This idea doesn't sit well with Travis, who sees this as an unnecessary, additional insult to his parents splitting up. But as Sam learns more about herself from each boarder, she realizes how much she has denied herself during her marriage. It's a difficult but also rewarding adjustment, as she finds new friends, hidden talents and perhaps even a new love along the way.

Elizabeth Berg is a brilliant writer whose simple yet eloquent prose can evoke laughter and tears. Take the first scene in the novel. Sam frantically whips up a Martha Stewart-inspired hot breakfast for Travis (complete with whale-shaped butter patties) the morning after David moves out, to prove to herself that she is going to be just fine, thank you very much. However, despite her efforts, her son, a typical pre-teen boy, wants to eat Cheerios and doesn't appreciate the butter or the fresh squeezed orange juice. It's agonizingly pathetic but also funny in a morbid sort of way. Or take the scene in which Sam discusses the personal ads with her boarder, Lydia.

"Here's one," Lydia says, squinting at the tiny print. "He's forty-three, he's financially secure, he likes dining out, travel and walks along the beach."

"Oh, they all say that. Honest to God. Read a few more. They will all say that. What I want to know is, when I go to the beach, how come I don't see hundreds of available men walking up and down looking for women? You know, expensive sweaters wrapped around their shoulders, airline tickets in their pockets?"

As Sam moves beyond the pain of the divorce, she has to deal with trying situations such as her first holiday alone, another scene that evokes a full range of emotions. As she builds confidence in herself, there are a few surprises along the way, and newly defined relationships with the people in her life, including Travis, her friends, and her annoying but well-meaning mother. Oh, and you'll never think of Martha Stewart in quite the same way again (which for me was a vast improvement).

The understated romance between Sam and King, a man she meets through one of her boarders, is sweet, but it's the only part of the novel that rings false. King is just too good to be true. Okay, he's overweight. But he's also a sensitive almost-virgin beta male, an astrophysicist who would rather work at odd jobs. How perfect is that, and how can Sam not see the diamond in the rough from their very first meeting?

The romance is only part of Sam's triumph, however. From being a woman who has tried to be what her husband wanted, she finally emerges as a woman who is nothing more or less than her true self.

One of Elizabeth Berg's favorite themes is a deep appreciation for the special, small moments of life. Like a good book, for example. Like this good book. Whether you're a regular Oprah Book Club reader or not, you'll savor Open House.

--Susan Scribner

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