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Say When by Elizabeth Berg

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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Yes, Virginia

The facts that Elizabeth Berg lives on the next block, that I walk by her house each day, and that I’ve enjoyed her earlier books, all led me with pleasure toward her latest offering, Say When. Once I started reading, the pleasure only increased, as she set the story in our neighborhood, and every few pages there was a business or location that I recognized. While other readers may not feel this down-home connection, you will enjoy the universality of her characters, their love, their struggles, their foibles, and their decisions to move ahead. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 116-121) of a scene where protagonist Griffen, separated from his wife, Ellen, goes out on a date with attractive Donna:

Donna picked a restaurant in Forest Park. It was quiet, she said, and the kind of place that didn't mind if you came in and ordered just a cup of coffee. "Although actually, what I'd really like is a beer."

"Me, too," Griffin said.

He followed her to a brown-shingled single-story building on Madison Street where he'd never been. It looked more like a house than a restaurant. A sign outside identified it as ESTELLE'S, and a smaller sign read, WE SPECIALIZE IN BREAKFAST, LUNCH, AND DINNER.

Griffin got out of his car and walked up to Donna, who was exiting hers. "I like it already!"

"The best part is that there really is an Estelle. One of a kind. She'll come out of the kitchen to yell at you a little, but it makes you feel great. I eat here a lot."

"You live in Forest Park?" Griffin asked.

 

"No, River Forest." She opened the door of the restaurant. “But I like the antiques stores in Forest Park and I'm over here a lot.'

Inside the restaurant, a thin graying waitress, midfifties, Griffin guessed, greeted them. She had an extra-short hairdo and deep wrinkles on her still-handsome face. She stood up from a booth where she'd been sitting reading the paper and smiled, then headed toward them. She was wearing a low-cut red blouse with several layers of ruffles, tight black pants, and white sneakers. A gold necklace spelled MARIE in flowery script; a pearl dotted the i. She stared uninhibitedly at Griffin until Donna said, "This is my friend, Frank Griffin. Frank, I'd like you to meet Marie Costa."

"How are you, hon?" She pumped his hand enthusiastically, winked at Donna. Then she gestured toward the empty room. "Sit anywhere youse want."

They chose a booth alongside a wall. Duct tape covered long tears in the red leatherette. They ordered beers, and Marie set down two overfilled mugs With a flourish. "Anything else?"

"No, thanks, Marie," Donna said, and Marie disappeared into the kitchen. "She's gone to get Estelle. Get ready."

Within moments, a huge woman with an exaggerated brown bouffant appeared. She lumbered over to the table and glowered at Donna. "Where the hell you been?" She was wearing a tentlike red dress covered with a white apron. She wiped her hands across her belly, then put them on her hips, waiting,

"Hey, Estelle, how are you? This is my friend, Frank Griffin."

Estelle ignored him. "I asked you where you been."

"I actually made my own dinner the last few nights."

Estelle frowned. "I made them pork chops you like the other night, and you didn't even come for any."

"Well, I'll be here tomorrow for dinner. What are you making?"

"Chili and corn bread. Lucas will be here to help."

"So it'll be the hot stuff.”

“That’s right.” She pointed at Griffin. “Who’s this trash?"

"Frank Griffin," Griffin said, holding out his hand, and she regarded him balefully. Then she stomped off toward the kitchen.

"She likes you," Donna said.

"Really. What does she do if she doesn't like you?"

"Throws you out." Donna held up her mug. "Cheers."

He clinked mugs with her. This wasn't so bad. "How did you ever find this place?"                                         

"My ex-husband brought me here. He defended Lucas in a murder case. He was innocent," she added quickly, "it was a case of mistaken identity. But Lucas offered him a free dinner—him and ‘the missus.' We came here on a Friday night, and the next morning Michael told me he wanted a divorce. He moved out that night. We've been divorced now for two years."                  I

Griffin didn't know what to say. The apparent disregard with which she told him this, the practiced nonchalance. It had to still hurt her. He'd forgotten that things like this happened to other people.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She shrugged. "It's okay. It gets better. You'll see."

"What do you mean?"

"You're newly divorced. Or getting a divorce, right?"

"Getting. Right. How did you know?"

She took a long swallow of beer, then said, "I told you. I can read people really well. Another beer?"

He smiled, almost shyly rubbed the top of his head. "I think so, yes."

Within two hours, Griffin had told Donna much about himself including the fact that he once whimsically asked a drugstore “love computer" about Ellen and him. He'd been thinking he'd bring the analysis home and give it to her, a little joke. "I put in our birth dates and our names," he told Donna, "and it gave back a printout of personality characteristics that was supposed to indicate how compatible we were."

"So what did it say?" Donna asked. "That you were a match made in heaven, right?"

He looked down, skated his mug around in a small circle on the wet tabletop. "Well, no, actually. It said we could be good friends, but that to try to have a serious relationship would be dangerous. It said my idea of fun was to go shopping for filing cabinets, and hers was to go on a spur-of-the-moment safari." He smiled. "It said my 'compatibility partner' was a fashion model."

She smiled back at him. "And who was Ellen's?"

"A movie star."

She burst out laughing.

He supposed it was ridiculous. And yet he'd saved that printout, carried it around in his wallet for months, reading it so often he memorized it. It had described Ellen as reluctant to lose control and independent plus, as being able to easily walk away from situations, as in demand for every dinner party. One night he'd showed the thing to Ellen. She'd read it, then looked up at him. "Where'd you get this?"

"At the drugstore. What do you think about what it says?"

"I don't get invited to any dinner parties." She read it again, then asked) "Did you want this?"

"No, just wanted to show you."

"Why?"

"No reason. Just thought it was interesting. You can throw it away."

There was a reason, he realized now. Even then, all those years ago, he'd been looking for something, and had found nothing.

Now he told Donna, "It's funny, though, how accurate those things can be."    .   

"What, you really lie thrilled by shopping for filing cabinets?"

He feigned surprise. “you aren’t?”

"Well, how big is the markdown?"

He sat back in the booth, smiled. "I am less . . . adventurous than my wife. We really aren't very compatible."

She shrugged. "But what difference does it make? God above could come down and tell some people they were wildly incompatible with their spouses, and they'd still want to be with them. like artists sacrificing so much for their art. For some people, their relationship is their art, and they'll give up everything for it. That’s how it is for you, Griffin. Right?"

"Don't be so sure. I'm changing quickly."

"I don't think so." She touched his arm. "But I still like you. And if you're . . . dating, I'd like to see you."

Estelle stuck her head out of the kitchen and yelled, "(CLOSING TIME!"

Donna raised her mug. "And to all a good night."

He walked her to her car. It was cold after the beer-and-grease warmth of the restaurant; the wind blew up his coat sleeves and down his neck. He could smell snow coming. "So!" He hugged her—quickly, awkwardly. "Good night."

"Do you like to ski?" she asked, suddenly.

"I tried it once. I wasn't very good at it. In the winter, hold heat in very high regard."

"How about dinner at my house next week, then? I have really good heat."                                        

When he hesitated, she said, "Look. I don't have any illusions about your . . . availability. I just like you. Think it over. Call me.”

"I will."

She slammed her car door, started her engine, waved goodbye. He stood shivering, watching her go, then started for his own car. A beautiful, blue-eyed blonde, whom others admired, liked him. He heard a door slam behind him, and then Estelle said, “What are you doing standing around out here? Getting ready to rob me? Well, forget it. I could lay you out flat as a shadow, boy, and tend my business at the same time. I cook turkeys that weigh more than you."

"Ah, Estelle. I was just saying good night to Donna."

She glared at him. "Ain't a man on the face of the earth deserves that one. And not you, neither."

He smiled; she scowled harder, and began walking away. She carried two overstuffed shopping bags that bumped into her legs with every step.

"Want me to give you a hand?" he called after her.

"Do I look like I'm helpless?" She didn't turn around, saying this. He couldn't wait to make her like him. Next time became to her restaurant, he'd bring her a beautiful bouquet. He knew women like this. Women like this, he understood.

Berg’s dialog is spot on, page after page. When Griffen becomes a Santa, we believe that there really is a Santa, because we and he begin to understand what’s important in relationships. Say When is a book to read in the backyard on a warm Summer afternoon, especially while sipping a glass of hot tea, brewed from the fine choices at Todd & Holland Tea Merchants in River Forest (www.todd-holland.com).

Steve Hopkins, June 21, 2003

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2003 issue of Executive Times

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