This past Mother's Day weekend, I finished reading Elizabeth Berg's "The Year of Pleasures" and Katie Hickman's "The Aviary Gate."
I've read three other books of Bergs, The Art of Mending, Talk Before Sleep and Durable Goods, but I only enjoyed The Art of Mending, so I wasn't going out of my way to find more books by Berg, really. Then I decided to put The Year of Pleasures on the reading list for my Tuesday night book group at the Maple Valley Library, and figured I could get a leg up by reading it before next month's meeting. I am so glad I did, because Berg's magnificent prose and strong characters kept me turning pages into the wee hours. The story is about Betta Nolan, a woman who was in one of those "once in a lifetime" relationships where the love is so strong between two soulmates that they become a world unto themselves and don't fraternize with friends or relatives. While this exclusionary life seems idylic at first, I think it became evident to Betta that, once her husband died of cancer, she was left heartbroken and depressed because she had no one to talk to about her grief and her decision to move to the Midwest.
It seems Betta and her late husband had discussed moving from Boston to a small town in the Midwest to retire and perhaps run a store together for fun one day, so Betta feels compelled to keep that promise, though she has no idea how to fulfill her vision of creating a new life without her husband. This seemed the only major flaw in Betta, as far as I could tell, but it was a huge one, in that she seemed so helpless and clueless without a man in her life. Still, when Betta drives to Stewart, Illinois, and finds the house of her dreams, everything seems to fall into place for her, including having an adorable neighbor boy come to help her, she reconnects with her college buddies and even makes friends with the stout real estate agent, though she acts snobbish about weight throughout the book (which only makes her seem more unstable and unlikable).
Having grown up in small towns in Iowa my whole life, the characters and their actions toward a new widow in town rang true to me, and I was delighted that Berg made mention of how cheaply one can live in small Midwestern towns vs big cities. Berg's prose is golden, and I'd recommend this to anyone who has had to start life over after the death of a loved one.
I am looking forward to the discussion next month with my fellow bibliophiles at the library!
The Aviary Gate was an impulse buy from the book sale rack a the library, as it has a 'chick lit' kind of cover, with a sultry woman in harem silks staring our from a painting with a doleful gaze.
Like AS Byatt's Possession, this book tells the tale of an Englishwoman, Celia Lamprey, who is taken after a shipwreck into a sultans harem as a concubine, or sex slave, surrounded by cutthroat harem women and eunnuchs who plan on using Celia for their own agenda. Meanwhile, in present day, a young woman finds one of Celia's letters in an old manuscript and goes on a hunt for more information about Celia and her long lost fiance, the merchant Paul Pindar. Apparently they were both in Constantinople (in the 16th century) at the same time, so Celia attempted to do the unthinkable and see her fiance one more time before giving herself to the sultan, who is described as a grotesque, obese bully.
I was surprised by the high quality prose in this book, and by the swift and intelligently-formed plot. The characters are all beautifully drawn, created in such a way that the reader cares for them and their fates, though we realize that not all of them will meet a good end. Though we are left wondering whether or not Celia and Paul ever did meet, the author still manages to come to a complete ending that is satisfying and heartfelt. I'd recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fiction and historical romantic fiction.