Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg
(Jove, $6.50, G) ISBN 0-515-11978-4
*****

Friends, take a short break from reading regular romance novels and discover the joys of Elizabeth Berg. This may not be a love story in the conventional sense, but it is a celebration of human spirit and the simple miracle of being alive. Range of Motion is one of those books that you want to share with a friend.

Lainey Berman has a part-time job, two daughters, and a husband who has been in a coma for the past 3 months, the victim of a freak accident. As the novel begins, Jay has just been moved from a hospital to a nursing home because his condition is not improving. Lainey struggles to cope with the terrible uncertainty and to find the faith to believe that Jay will wake up someday, despite poor prognosis reports from his doctors. Her neighbor and best friend, Alice, is always there for her, as is one beneficent nurse and the ghost of a woman who lived in Lainey's house 50 years ago.

Describing the plot alone will not begin to define the elegance of this book. Berg's gifts are numerous. She has an absolute knack for finding beauty in the smallest of details. Lainey reminisces about the donuts that Jay used to bring home every weekend, the bag "stained with irresistible patterns of translucence from the grease." She sums up Alice's entire relationship with her husband, Ed, by describing how he moves his chair away ever so slightly when Alice sits down next to him.

Sometimes Berg's ability to depict single moments can be heartbreaking. Lainey wishes futilely that Jay's name was longer; he was signing checks the morning of his accident, and if he had had a longer name that required a few seconds more to write, he would not have been at the wrong place at the wrong time, and his accident would not have happened.

Despite the potentially tragic plot, Berg manages to make the reader smile as well. Here's my favorite line, as she describes a less-than-compassionate nurse: "She was wearing heart-shaped earrings that as far as I was concerned were lying." These moments abound, usually just when you think you are going to start weeping uncontrollably.

Berg obviously cherishes the relationships among women, and the friendship between Lainey and Alice is beautifully characterized. The ghostly Evie who appears to Lainey seemed a little superfluous to me, but as Evie describes her life in the 1940s, Berg seems to be making a nostalgic pitch for the days when women had supportive networks of friends within their own neighborhoods.

Range of Motion is not a typical romance between two characters, in that the only insight we have into Jay is a few dreamy thoughts he has as he lies in the coma. Berg seems to imply that Jay finds a kind of truth while unconscious that the rest of the world cannot possibly fathom. But Lainey's memories of their relationship- such as how the two of them used to sing to each other in bed about what they did that day - are so intimate and sincere that you root for a happy ending for the couple.

I just can't do this delicate yet powerful book justice in a review written by an ordinary mortal. I just have to salute Elizabeth Berg for what she is able to accomplish in 264 very short pages. And urge you to read Range of Motion with a box of Kleenex at your side and a list of friends with whom to share it.

--Susan Scribner


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