The moment I saw the opening quote from Tori Amos's song "China," I had a feeling I was going to like Elizabeth Berg's latest novel, WHAT WE KEEP. Maybe that was a bit presumptuous, but after having read the book it turned out to be true.
Imagine yourself in an airplane flying to California to see the mother who abandoned you 35 years ago. That is the opening sequence in this captivating and touching story. Ginny Young, a woman with a family of her own, is traveling across the country to visit her mother and sister. During the long flight, Ginny loses herself in a long reverie about the summer of 1958, before her mother left.
This is no ordinary frame novel, Ginny goes back and forth --- contemplating the soft clouds that graze her airplane window one moment, and in the next, traveling back to the scalding summer days in Clear Falls, Wisconsin the summer she turned twelve and her whole life changed. The how and the why about her mother's sudden departure is what Ginny wants to figure out. So with only brief pauses in the present --- long enough for a gulp of stale airplane air --- she dives into the past.
With her affinity for detail, Ginny recalls every feeling, thought, and word. Her story is believable. You can see Ginny and her sister Sharla snooping in their neighbor's house, bickering in their backyard, and watching their parent's marriage crumble. Then, only pages later, you easily return to the airplane with the adult Ginny who is closely observing the two children sitting nearby. Although the "time travel" may be distracting at first, Berg accomplishes this difficult feat with ease and grace. You don't even feel the turbulence.
The best thing about this book is the ending. It just feels so right. Years of bitterness and rage soften but do not disappear in this revealing account of a reunion that almost didn't happen.
Reviewed by Dana H. Schwartz on January 24, 2011
What We Keep