Don't be fooled by the cynically titled UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG. Elizabeth Berg, who is a master of voice and character, has written a positive work full of hopeful realism and energy. In her latest novel, voice and character shine as heirs to the promise of her first book DURABLE GOODS. UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG is a story about love, longing, compromise and acceptance.
Sounds heavily banal but this is not true in the voice or tone of this novel. Rather, Berg's deliciously deft touch can be likened to a swift saber unhinging ones clothes so quickly that one barely has time to blink before the novel's world has ascended and won the reader over with its charmingly naked shining voice.
The plot revolves around Patty's journey towards love in it various forms. She can't seem to find it with anyone. She counts herself a second place finisher in life. Mostly, it is because she is still in love with ex-fiancé Ethan who was formerly in love with her for a while. However, Ethan went on to discover his passion for men and Patty has been left out in the cold throes of mere friendship. To pass the time while she pines, plots and plunks herself readily in front of his lack of desire, she dates other men, hangs out with friends, family and surrogate families, and unsuccessfully sells real estate. All efforts at happiness are futile until the biological urge to procreate betters both their considerations and voila, the glimmer of possible happiness seems to peek out. Weary of the Aids-caused deaths among his peers, Ethan imagines a new life for them, in a new town, in hetero-reproductory fashion. Patty, unhinged with the imaginative possibilities with her one true love, gives it a try although the odds are long.
The great thing about this novel is the beauty of the voice. Singing echoes throughout as Patty buzzes from scene to scene as flower to flower. The temporal pacing of the story helps match the flight song movements. And the gender is so unmistakably female that as a male reviewer, I felt I had secret glimpses into and understanding of the other team's play book. The novel is so charming that I felt as if I were on a date with the author. Ethan, therefore, cannot be as fully developed and that slows the motion a bit as one struggles to create a fuller picture of him and to figure out exactly why, besides his looks, a few personal tidbits, and taste in clothes, Patty thinks of him as a soul mate.
But the partially formed, yet still very real character Ethan is a minor glitch in an otherwise delightful and engaging look at modern, idiosyncratic love. The main lesson learned is that one cannot help but love a certain somebody and any efforts at true happiness must, if need be, be a compromise within the internal logic of that system, and only with that other special person. So in a sense, this may not be a form of compromise but yet it is a form of acceptance for all the terms are not perfect. This is very complicated and only Berg's swift, quick strokes can create a live, dancing musical of such confusing exploration. Patty is feminine, vulnerable, and sensitive yet courageous at a time when it is fashionable to be genderless, tough and protectively canny. Berg must be much the same, for she wrote this book, and bravely handed to the reading public a decidedly anti-modern heroine; a heroine timelessly classical and unafraid to be human. And courage like that, coupled with real writing talent always makes for interesting reading in any season.
Reviewed by Kiril Stefan Alexandrov on January 24, 2011
Until the Real Thing Comes Along (Ballantine Reader's Circle)