The iffiness of ‘Home Safe’

Before I launch into this, I want to quote two items from the back of Home Safe.

1. From the back section entitled Elizabeth Berg on Mothers and Daughters:
When I wrote “Home Safe,” I wanted to look at a number of things. The mystery and joy and pain of creativity. What happens when a vital safety net is suddenly removed. The difficulty some people have in growing up. The way a deep love can be as crippling as satisfying. But mostly, I wanted to look at the mother-daughter relationship. I wanted to “be” my daughter when she is looking at me and shaking her head and saying, rapid-fire, “Mom. Mom. Mom.” What is inside all that kind of exasperation?
2. The first line of her Acknowledgments:
I owe an enormous debt to a few people who saw the value of this book early on, when I couldn’t.
Home Safe is short at 258 pages. For everything that Berg explains she wanted to include, that’s a lot for under 300 pages. Yes, I can confidently say she included all of that. But to the book’s detriment.
The premise: Helen’s husband died a year earlier and she can no longer write (she was a career novelist). She is close to her daughter Tessa although that relationship seem fraught.
The plot: Helen considers getting a part-time job since she can’t write. She then decides she needs to get a part-time job because she learns her husband had taken $850,000 out of their $1 million retirement account.
At this point, I thought the book was going to start to pick up. Did her husband lead a double-life? A gambling problem? A drug addiction? The possibilities were endless.
The answer was none of those fun ideas. He had used the money to build the dream house Helen had always talked about. She discovers this only because the hunky builder learns that her husband had died and contacts her. Now she has to decide if she wants to keep the house or sell it.
Oh, and she starts teaching a 6-week writing course to bring in some extra money.
I think those are the main plot points.
There was a distinct lack of obstacles for Helen to deal with. Although I suppose Berg would make the case that the obstacles came from within Helen: her previous dependence on her husband, her struggle to relax her hold on her daughter, yada yada yada.
I’m all for internal struggles and journeys but the stakes never felt raised. There was not a lot of back-story so I’m not sure why Helen and Tessa have a tense relationship. I think for a book that wants to be about the mother-daughter relationship, there weren’t enough scenes with the two of them interacting.
And can we talk about all the italicized words in the dialogue?!? I am against this as a rule unless it is absolutely necessary to show me the emphasized word in a sentence. Berg riddles her dialogue with italics, both mother and daughter. It just made me think the 27-year old daughter sounded like a whiny teenager. And then when the mother spoke with italics! Ugh! This has to be Berg’s personal voice coming through because she had italicized words in her Acknowledgments and in the essay at the back of the book.
The redeeming part of the book was Berg’s portrayal of the artist at work. Her descriptions of Helen’s wandering eye and mind were spot on. The collection of details, snippets of life. The fight to sit down and write when nothing is percolating. There were also some rants on the decline of books and reading in general, things a writer fears. If the novel had been only about the loss of ideas due to grief, it would have been more focused and the best, most beautifully written sections would have been on display.

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