Elizabeth Berg has a superb sense of how human connections work --- whether it is between parent and teenager, or between divorced couples --- and never more so than in ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS YOU. John and Irene Marsh came together, married and then divorced. Each of them had been part of a family whose lives had gone awry in their own unique ways. On the day when John and Irene were about to marry, they harbored doubts about their own feelings concerning marriage and love. Was their divorce to be expected?
They produced a daughter, Sadie, whom they both love to the point of distraction. Irene is intensely devoted to Sadie, who is now 18. Irene was a speech therapist before she had Sadie, but currently works for caterer Harry Bliss. She is his girl Friday as she shops, chops, cooks and cleans both for and after events. John lives in Minnesota while Irene and Sadie are in California, yet he is aware that their daughter is growing into adulthood. Irene is not quite as astute in the same way as John about their daughter's maturity.
Sadie is on her way home to California from visiting her father in Minnesota. It's late summer, and she's heading to college soon. Wanting to challenge herself, she's hoping her father can convince her mother that it's okay for her to go rock climbing not too far from home. Her friend, who has been climbing since he was six years old, will be part of the group. She has even gone so far as to borrow fairly new climbing shoes from a friend to show her readiness and responsibility. Her father is supportive, as he understands the need for physical and mental challenges, viewing them as an important part of growing up. Based on his experience restoring and renovating old buildings, he says to Sadie, "Renovation is personal for me. Since I was your age."
Sadie is also learning to assert herself in quiet ways and gain a foothold on being an adult. She's dating a boy named Ron, but neither parent has any idea about their ongoing and growing relationship. Even after John's talk with Irene, her mother is against the rock climbing and camping overnight adventure. Despite the deep concern, Irene finally agrees that she can go.
Sadie sets out for her weekend unaware, until it is too late, that she will encounter a life-changing event. She discovers what is important to her and decides to take charge of her life. Soon she will make another decision that changes her life completely. This crisis with their daughter provides an opportunity for Irene and John to take a second look at their relationship, their role as parents and themselves. Will they get back together? Will they resolve the differences between them and their daughter? As Irene's best friend, Valerie, says, "Love is the answer. But sometimes love isn't what you think it is."
ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS YOU is about a time in one's life when one's child has a life-changing event. Elizabeth Berg's stories always reveal a knowledge and understanding of women's inner lives, and their hopes and dreams. She knows what makes them tick. Through her latest novel, this reviewer has learned more about human nature.
Reviewed by Jennifer McCord on October 4, 2011
Once Upon a Time, There Was You