Women tell all, with laughs

July 15, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

In the opening piece of Elizabeth Berg's new book of short stories, the female narrator describes waiting in line at the scale at a Weight Watchers meeting behind a blind woman and a woman on oxygen.

"Here's my question," the narrator says. "When a blind woman looks into her mirror, what does she see?"

The fury and frustration she feels propels her out the door and to a Dunkin' Donuts, where she begins "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted," which also happens to be the title of the rollicking collection the author describes as "small acts of liberation."

I was laughing out loud as I read Berg's description of what it feels like to finally eat all the menu items you have denied yourself in the name of someone else's idea of beauty.

Her narrator sucks the filling out of a Boston cream on her way through a box of doughnuts. For lunch, she fantasizes about Chicago hot dogs slathered in sauce and cheese, but orders instead a bacon cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate malt with whipped cream.

In midafternoon, she stops for a turtle sundae with extra caramel sauce, and for dinner, she has steak with mushrooms, a baked potato loaded with toppings, a Caesar salad and two desserts.

Between meals, she tells all the secrets and all the lies of perpetual dieters, and they are funny in that way that familiar things often are among people who share them.

That is the quality of the experiences of the women in these stories. So familiar that they could only be written by someone who lived them, who didn't simply invent them.

In "Returns and Exchanges," a woman who operates a dating service for people older than 50 hears from a client who she is certain is an old boyfriend. She glams herself up for his appointment, but he does not recognize her and she companionably changes into her old clothes to go out to dinner with her husband.

"The Party" is an allegory of the power men have over women - who conclude their lively girls-in-the-corner conversation and leave the party when the husbands decide they are ready.

You can almost feel Helen Donnelly's furious tears in "Over The Hill and Into the Woods" as she endures the careless disregard of her grown children at the holidays. And the excruciating shame Janey feels on a summer trip to see her cousins when she hears her adored older boy cousin mutter an epithet about her body under his breath to her in "Full Count."

"Mrs. Ethel Menafee and Mrs. Birdie Stoltz" are widows and dear friends who overlook the idiosyncrasies of one another to reach a gentle accommodation in the face of death. In "Sin City," Rita, whose husband moved her into a retirement community she did not like and then promptly died, runs away to Las Vegas.

And "Truth or Dare" tells the stories of what happens when a trio of divorcees, who meet weekly for dinner, go looking for lost lovers.

There is, in each of these stories and others in this slim book, a great affirmation in the experiences of the characters - experiences we have all had or will have.

Elizabeth Berg is that wonderful girlfriend we all should have - the one who can articulate what each of us is feeling in the face of disappointment.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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Read recent columns by Susan Reimer at baltimoresun.com/reimer

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