Sometimes it can be challenging for book discussion groups to find titles that everyone can feel positive about: the English major, the romance fan, the one in search of a happy ending. Elizabeth Berg has gained a reputation for writing the kinds of books that fill the bill: smart, literate novels that offer opportunities for reflection and discussion while still remaining fundamentally optimistic at the end of the day.
THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU, Berg’s latest work, is no exception. Given its subject matter, it’s a novel guaranteed to speak to women (and some men) of a certain age. Its central crisis is the rapidly-approaching 40th high school reunion of a group of men and women in their late 50s. Each of them has his or her own reasons for wanting to attend the reunion, and his or her own expectations and hopes for what the reunion could possibly mean for the future.
Dorothy Shauman, one of a group of popular girls in high school, has been dieting, primping and preening her body to within an inch of its life, all in the hopes of catching the eye of a boy she once knew. That boy, though, is now a man caught in between a gorgeous but annoying, much younger mistress, and a maddening yet desirable wife --- and he’s hoping that the chance to attend the reunion with his high school sweetheart might rekindle the flame of his marriage. There’s also Lester Heseenpfeffer, the gentle veterinarian who has always harbored a desire for the most beautiful girl in their high school class; Lester himself has grown out of his adolescent nerdiness and into quite a catch in his own right. Candy Armstrong, the object of Lester’s desire, is hiding a secret and has her own desperate reasons for wanting to attend the reunion. And then there’s Mary Alice Mayhew, the girl who was ruthlessly mocked by the popular kids, but isn’t quite the shrinking violet everyone always assumed her to be.
Clearly, Berg is exploring --- and exploiting --- some pretty fundamental high school stereotypes: the jock, the nerd, the shy girl, the mean girl, the unattainable beauty. But she does so in a way that will resonate with her primarily mature readers, those who have seen for themselves that high school --- such a short period of one’s life --- is both ultimately meaningless and deeply meaningful in its long-lasting consequences. Berg’s characters have been out of school for decades, but many of them are still dealing with the remnants of their high school selves: crumbling or struggling marriages, decades of disappointments, indelible dents to their self-esteem or self-image.
At their reunion, Berg’s characters are also standing at the crossroads of middle age and whatever comes after. They still view themselves as sexual beings but are also aware --- many times intimately so --- of their rapidly deteriorating bodies. They may feel young inside, but reunions like this one are palpable reminders of the passage of time; sometimes observing an aging peer is a more brutal awakening than looking in a mirror.
There may be few surprises, few truly revelatory moments in THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU. But there will be plenty of moments of recognition, those small statements or scenes that will speak wholeheartedly to Berg’s readers, whether they’re contemplating their own landmark reunions or just the glimpse of another gray hair or wrinkle. Berg’s novel acknowledges the passage of time, grapples with it, and comes out on the other side hopeful and optimistic. Her fans will gladly join her in this journey.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 30, 2010
The Last Time I Saw You