Saturday, January 22, 2022

Home Safe



by Elizabeth Berg

Published by Random House, New York, 2009

From the first chapter I knew I was going to like this book. Helen is a fifty-nine year old widow who is learning to cope on her own for the first time in her life. Tessa, her twenty-nine year old daughter shows her irritation for Helen’s meddling and interfering in her life by rolling her eyes and starting every conversation with “Mom, Mom – Stop!” Helen perceives what she is doing as being helpful, being a good mother and giving good counsel. People use the word co-dependent when they describe Helen. She asks herself why that is so bad. “You know what? I’ll bet if you talked to a hundred strong women, ninety-nine of them would say, I’m sick of being strong! I would like someone else to make the decision!” She used to roll out pie crusts and tend the flower garden while Dan balanced the checkbook, changed the light bulbs and fixed the toilet. Maybe a little old-fashioned by Tessa’s standards but, she wonders, is that really so wrong? Helen likes her role. She always felt warm, safe, and loved. Besides, she is more than a housewife and a mother; she is also a successful writer.

Now, Helen leans on Tessa for all the things Dan has done before he dropped her favorite coffee mug, slipped quietly from the kitchen chair, and died. Besides Tessa, Helen has her best friend Midge. Where Helen is imaginable and prone to be unresolved, Midge is practical and steady. Midge knows Helen better than she knows herself. Sometimes she has to resort to tough love to help Helen through her passage from grief and dependence to optimism and autonomy.

Helen is astonished when she finds out that the nest egg she thinks Dan has left them is greatly diminished by a mysterious $850,000 withdrawal. He never made any mention of such a withdrawal or what it was for. Helen had never so much as looked at their investment statements. Now she has to wonder what it was that he held back from her. Could it have been another woman, a gambling debt? It is all unimaginable to her. Although a call from a man in San Francisco reveals the reason for the missing funds, the answer poses even more surprises and sets her on a journey she is not sure she wants to pursue.

Helen has lost her inspiration to write since Dan’s death. If other writers were having “writer’s block,” she is encountering a block wall. She always says that it just comes to her, nothing teachable or profound. She likes to leave little things around the house to stimulate her creativity and minute notes with phrases to trigger ideas. But now the well is coming up empty, and she can’t even remember what those little hints were meant to evoke in her. She is surprised when a colleague asks her to teach a writing workshop. At first turning it down, then reflecting on her newly revealed financial situation, she relents and agrees to give it a try. The students in her class are intuitive and vibrant. Their writing assignments astound her. Told through their narratives, you get a glimpse into this diverse group of individuals and what makes them tick. The reader will find their stories are as intriguing as they are for Helen.

Many changes are taking place in Helen’s life. The reason for the missing money presents itself with many choices and decisions for Helen. Tessa also has a surprise for Helen which Midge helps her come to terms with.

There are mixed reviews on this novel from other readers. Some claim it is dull and predictable and they don’t care for the main character. It is an easy afternoon read, but I found it delightful. Helen’s story is both nostalgic and awakening. I found the three main characters, Helen, Tessa and Midge to be colorful personalities, and the dialogue between them believable and most often humorous. The male characters are pretty nondescript, except for the students. Definitely a light woman’s novel, it still poses lots of questions that could make for great book club discussions.

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