Elizabeth Berg’s novels, written from the deepest part of a woman’s heart, are the very epitome of Women’s Fiction – and her success has derived, in large part, from her uncanny ability to put words to our gender’s thoughts and dreams. So her decision to tell Say When, the account of a troubled marriage, from the husband’s point of view is somewhat surprising. I appreciate her willingness to explore a new direction, but the result is not one of her strongest novels.
Frank Griffin suspects that his wife Ellen is attracted to another man, but he is confident that she won’t engage in anything more than a little flirtation to relieve the inevitable boredom of a ten-year marriage. So he is totally stunned when Ellen announces that she is in love with her Basic Auto Mechanics instructor and wants a divorce. In his shock and despair, he is certain of one thing – he’s not leaving their house and their 8-year-old daughter Zoe. If Ellen is the one breaking up the marriage, she can find her own place. But Ellen, a stay-at-home mom, insists that Zoe needs her presence. So an uncomfortable emotional but not quite physical separation ensues, during which Griffin has time to ruminate about his behavior as a husband and wonder where the marriage went wrong. In desperation, he takes a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa to fill his lonely evenings and considers becoming involved with an attractive divorcée. But in his heart, he knows he still loves Ellen, and wonders how he can find the magic words that will make her agree to try again.
This brief character study doesn’t shed any new light on human relationships but Berg quietly lets Griffin find his own truths about love and marriage. He realizes that, although he deeply loves Ellen, he has stopped relating meaningfully with her; at some point “Ellen the individual was replaced with Ellen, my wife, as in Ellen, my car.” He misses the simple comforts of marriage – “the ease with which you could flop down on the sofa, exhausted after a hard day’s work, and know that you had company that required nothing of you” – but eventually understands that something is required of him, that he has to really listen to Ellen and make an effort to keep the relationship thriving.
Because the reader only sees Ellen through Griffin’s eyes, she remains elusive, an odd, shy, somewhat selfish woman who wants to have her cake and eat it too – the love affair, the excitement, but also the house and the child. It’s difficult to understand why Griffin is so determined to win her back, especially when another much less enigmatic woman is obviously interested in him, but his love for Ellen, while almost inexplicable, is unwavering.
At times almost relentlessly sad, Say When is leavened only by Griffin’s experiences as a mall Santa. His encounters with the children are humorous but occasionally poignant, and through his work Griffin finds his more expressive self, which he then uses to woo back Ellen. If all mall Santas are as gently caring as Griffin, I’m sorry I never took my own kids to see one.
I can’t say if Berg nails the male point of view as incisively as she does the female one in her other books, but the portrait that emerges of Griffin – confused, angry, but well-intentioned and honorable – feels authentic. There are no villains in the novel, just two vulnerable individuals who are trying to find their way. The insights they gain are ones familiar to anyone who has read a Marriage 101 manual, but it never hurts to have them repeated.