Never Change

Open House

Range Of Motion

Until the Real Thing
Comes Along

 
True to Form by Elizabeth Berg
(Atria, $24, G) ISBN 0-7434-1134-X
****
Hereís a brief excerpt from my diary when I was 13 years old:

Got through a full week of school. I wish I was popular. Everyoneís talking about the dance. Iím sure I wonít go. Dave said hi to me today before I said hi to him, do you think that means something?

Hereís the thoughts of 13 year old Katie Nash, the heroine of True to Form:

Itís beautiful outside, the kind of day where the sun touches you like mothers touch their babiesí cheeks. Your breath rides in your chest like a slow-swaying hammock, and your eyes see in the rich way: Yellow isnít yellow, itís butterscotch; the red on the roses is velvet.

My point is (other than damn, Iím glad Iím not 13 anymore!) is that Elizabeth Bergís latest release doesnít read like the diary of any real 13 year old Iíve ever known. Instead, the narration sounds like an adult looking back at her adolescence in an attempt to finally make some sense out of it, the device used in televisions shows such as The Wonder Years and State of Grace. Despite this touch of artifice, True to Form is another beautiful, delicate work by one of womenís fictionís most lyrical writers.

Katie has already starred in two of Bergís earlier works, Durable Goods and Joy School. True to Form takes place in 1961, the summer before 10th grade. Katieís strict, emotionally distant father has arranged two jobs for his fanciful daughter. She will baby-sit three unruly boys, and help an elderly neighbor care for his bedridden wife. Hardly ideal summer jobs, but Katie knows there will be no changing her intransigent fatherís mind. During her down time, Katie hangs out with her only friend in St. Louis. Like her, Cynthia is a ďloser,Ē but the two friends understand and support each other.

While the events of True to Form arenít as earth shattering as the family crises in Durable Goods or the impossible first crush of Joy School, they are more universal. Katie learns about love and marriage by comparing the affection she witnesses between the Randolphs, the elderly couple she assists, and the barely controlled anger she sees between the Wexlers when she baby-sits their sons. Despite the grief she still feels over her motherís death from cancer several years ago, Katie starts to form a stronger bond with her stepmother, Ginger. She has a chance to return to her former home in Texas and visit her former best friend, Cherylanne, when she wins a radio contest. To her dismay, she realizes that they have grown apart, and their differences have become glaringly obvious, yet their continued correspondence remains one of Katieís most important lifelines.

Perhaps the most momentous episode of that summer occurs when Katie attends a party with the girls from the private school she will be attending in the fall. In a moment of weakness, she betrays Cynthia and is forced to face some hard truths about herself. As Katie says, When you realize that for your whole life you will have to be so careful making choices, it can make you feel tired. Other events emphasize the potential risks in life, as the sensitive teenager who has already experienced her motherís death, her older sisterís flight from the family, and her fatherís occasional cruelty muses on the randomness of fate:

I sit on the bed and think how life is never safe and they should tell you that right off the bat. Things happen out of order and just plain wrong, and there is not one thing you can do about it. The message of every morning is: ?????????

As in most of Bergís novels, there are many passages that demand to be re-read, mulled over and savored. So a brief 200 page novel ends up feeling richer and longer than the page count would indicate. While revisiting adolescence is not always comfortable, Katieís spirit of endurance and her poetís soul make the journey back well worth the effort.

--Susan Scribner


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