When Frank Griffin learns his wife Ellen is having an affair, he
feels his marriage begin to dissolve. And when Ellen says she wants
a divorce, his whole world starts to fall apart. Griffin's struggle
to save his marriage and his realizations of his role in its demise
are at the center of Elizabeth Berg's latest novel, SAY WHEN.
Griffin and Ellen seem to have it all: a home in the suburbs, a
beautiful and smart daughter, and a relationship that has lasted.
Still, Griffin's suspicions of his wife's new relationship are
confirmed, and he must call into question his marriage and his
emotional history with Ellen in order to secure their future
Neither Ellen nor Griffin is initially willing to leave their home
or their daughter. So the two live for a time as roommates, even as
Ellen continues to see her lover. Griffin is torn between his need
for Ellen and wanting her back, and his anger and loneliness that
drive him to begin a relationship of his own. Griffin's daughter
Zoe is a source of comfort to him in the midst of marital
turbulence. She is a wise little tomboy who reacts to the turmoil
(as well as social pressure) by both pulling away from her parents
and exploring her femininity. In Zoe, Ellen and Griffin have a
gauge for their relationship and their emotions. Griffin is also
grounded by his seasonal job as a shopping mall Santa Claus.
Working as Santa turns out to be an unexpected and much needed
distraction, besides being a simple and effective way to put his
life in perspective.
After Ellen finally moves into a place of her own, Griffin is stuck
with the emptiness she leaves behind. He is also left to try to
understand the things she has told him about his treatment of her
over the years. Griffin begins to see his role in Ellen's leaving
and starts to reevaluate their relationship and his feelings for
her. Just as Griffin starts to get comfortable with the idea of
Ellen being gone for good, he rallies one last time to win her
back. It is possible that, just as they told Zoe, Ellen will be
back for Christmas.
SAY WHEN is not a long novel; in fact it is concise and
conservative with its words. But the emotional life of Griffin,
caught at this moment of crisis and reflection, is powerful
nonetheless. Berg's prose is deceptively simple, neatly packaging a
complicated story. Griffin is an undeniably real character; he is
written with honesty and integrity, yet his flaws are large, many
and important. Zoe, too, is an interesting and realistic character.
Ellen is harder to understand; she is complex, sad and just as
confused as Griffin. Because the story is written from Griffin's
perspective, Ellen is harder to understand and relate to. She is
elusive to the reader perhaps because, despite what he says, she
remains elusive to Griffin.
Capturing the nuances, the hope and the frustration of a marriage
in trouble, Berg has written a wise, wonderful and bittersweet
novel that raises many questions about love and relationships.
Griffin is, in many ways, an everyman. We know Griffin and relate
to him and really want this marriage to work. Incredibly
insightful, SAY WHEN is a novel unafraid to explore issues of
modern marriage, and the fantasies and realities of love and
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011