Berg's 'Open House' -- emerging into a new life

July 23, 2000|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,Sun Staff

"Open House," by Elizabeth Berg. Random House. 241 pages. $23.95.

Samantha Morrow, known as Sam, has just had her world turned inside out.

David, her husband of a dozen years, wants out of their marriage, leaving her to fend for herself and their 11-year-old son, Travis.

David comes from "a family of extraordinary wealth," but after Sam treats herself to a $12,000 shopping spree at the local Tiffany & Co. store, he tells her she'll have to make do on a lot less. For Sam, whose only paying job was as a "girl singer" in a rock band years earlier, that means going to work or taking in boarders.

She decides to do both, with consequences that will startle and amuse readers of "Open House," a fine literary novel by Elizabeth Berg of Massachusetts. Smart, funny and satisfying, "Open House" makes for quick but pleasurable summer reading.

Bringing up a child on your own. Dating again. Building a new life. All are familiar themes in separation and divorce, but that doesn't mean Sam is prepared for any of them. On any given day, she is some combination of sad, foolish and hopeful as she wrestles with her dilemma. But Berg, the author of several critically praised books, including "Durable Goods" and "Talk Before Sleep," avoids making Sam seem pathetic. Sam, we figure out early on, is a strong woman; she just doesn't know it yet.

For help in finding her way, Sam turns to the first of her boarders, Lydia, a wise and cheerful woman in her 70s who becomes a surrogate grandmother to Travis. Another boarder, Edward, a hairdresser, gives Sam a makeover and encourages her to have a love life. Sam even seeks guidance, by telephone, from Martha Stewart.

Sam also meets her soulmate, King. Big, heavy and something of an oddball, King hardly fits the image of a romantic lead, but he proves to be the stalwart presence Sam needs.

With King's encouragement, Sam takes temporary jobs. She makes change in a laundromat, lasts less than a week as a telemarketer, even works construction for a man who is "killer handsome." The jobs offer joys or defeats, but Sam emerges from them whole and happy, ready to face the world on her own terms.

"Open House" is not a masterpiece, nor is it the sort of novel that reveals Great Truths about the human condition. But it is a joy to read, for the sheer grace of Berg's writing and for the sharply drawn characters who could be people you and I know, in circumstances familiar to many of us.

Harry Merritt, The Sun's bureau chief for Baltimore County, has edited for the newspaper's foreign, national, features and city desks. He has also worked at newspapers in Mississippi, Kentucky and Minnesota.

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