In Elizabeth Berg's latest novel, THE YEAR OF PLEASURES, heroine Betta Nolan's husband John died, but not before reminding her that she is "stronger than (she) knows." After scattering his ashes (and burying "a pinch," releasing a bit into the air, setting some afire, and even swallowing a tad), Betta embarks on a journey of a lifetime, the relocation from Boston to the small midwestern town she promised her husband she would undertake. "What fell to me now," she said, "what I was driving toward, was the creation of a new kind of life, minus the ongoing influence of what I had loved and depended upon most in the world."
Seeking the joy John wanted for her, Betta searches for pleasure in the mundane, the every day --- cups of coffee, pancakes, the dog next door. She rekindles friendships with three former college roommates: impulsive Lorraine, the theater director; earth-mother Maddy, the nurse-practitioner; and divorced Susanna, the divorce attorney. They step up --- even after decades --- to support her in her dark moments. Through heartfelt phone calls and long overdue visits, they buoy her and go so far as to convince her that a year of grief deserves to be followed by "a year of pleasures."
John's fear that he not only kept her from her old friends but also from making new friends during their marriage is visited in flashbacks, proving they were so involved in each other that they didn't see --- or feel --- what was missing. The memories are loving and touching, bittersweet glimpses of their love and their life.
New friends become a theme of Betta's life in her new hometown. Ten-year-old Benny offers to do odd jobs beyond his years, and in so doing becomes somewhat of a surrogate son. Michael, the twenty-something handyman she meets in a coffee shop, does the real odd jobs of shoveling and painting, and becomes a confidant and inspiration. Delores, the real estate agent who sold her a new house, is a rock, and even Lydia, the crotchety previous owner of the house, is a comfort (albeit a cranky comfort). A motley bunch --- her friends, old and new --- they embody John's long repeated advice, "love what you love without apology."
One word sums up the theme of THE YEAR OF PLEASURES: resilience. Berg's writing is as moving as ever and her characters strong and charming. Beautifully crafted sentences and scenes carry Betta from death to rebirth: "With John, I'd found one kind of love. In the little town I'd moved to, I'd found another."
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 24, 2011
The Year of Pleasures