The first book I ever read by Elizabeth Berg was something I read in one sitting, and was blown away by. That was Range of Motion, and it was a long time ago, and I don’t think I’ve loved any of her books quite so much since. But she’s still on my List, because even when I don’t love a book of hers I still enjoy her ability, her writing; one of my GR friends used a phrase I want very much to steal, but instead I’ll just say something about the beauty and depth of her use of words. And so there was no question about whether I’d buy this when I had the chance.
But… I have to say I sighed a bit when I realized that the voice of the book is that of Diana Dunn, a precocious, rather amoral, self-centered 13-year-old girl. The basic groundwork for the story is that Diana’s mother, stricken by polio just before giving birth, is a quadriplegic. And since they can’t afford to have someone in to help them full time, they have someone during the day … and, since Diana was very young (VERY young), no one at all at night.
And that messed with my mind in many different directions.
I of all people understand not having the money to manage 24-hour care – and finding that the amount the state considers enough is very much not. I also understand misappropriating some of the funds to use for groceries and whatnot. I do. (I haven’t, but I understand.) But … I’m sorry, Diana’s mother is paralyzed. From the neck down. Requiring full-time electronic assistance to breathe. This isn’t merely “disabled”. This isn’t something that can be surpassed or overcome with willpower or a burst of adrenaline. All of the million what-ifs went through my head – What if, obviously, there was a fire? Would Diana get out, or die with her mother?
What if Diana got sick?
Cut herself badly?
What if someone broke in at night?
I think this was the aspect of the whole thing that bothered me the most. She was a child. Even the most accountable and selfless child can’t fend for herself under every circumstance – this wasn’t an Arthur Ransome novel. And Diana did not strike me as the most accountable, for the most part. I’ll come back to the issue of selflessness. If there was any possibility of a chance that she could have a life approximating that of an average child, she should have had that chance. If there’s any possible alternative, a child should never be forced to shoulder the kind of responsibility described in this book.
I’m quite sure my takeaway from this book was not meant to be that nearly everyone in it was extraordinarily selfish – and that the one person who was consistently selfless was ridden over and taken advantage of and given the fuzzy end of the lollipop every bit as consistently. I’m sure I’m supposed to look at this as a heroic struggle against blahbitty blah. Wait, there’s a quote to prove it: “…valuable lessons about love, honor and the real meaning of family…” I didn’t get any of that. Honor? Really? That’s rather rich. And “the real meaning of family” … I suppose by the end Diana gets it, but it’s kind of too late by then in many ways.
The book just … made me angry. Diana was pretty much introduced in the midst of plotting harm against her mother’s carer, Peacie – which plot she then proceeded to act upon. It wasn’t her fault that she waited too long and wasn’t able to actually do damage – she meant to. From there she proceeded to whine her way through the book, complaining about – oh, everything, from having to put herself out to go get groceries to not being able to buy Lay’s potato chips, and escalating to outright theft and the most heinous piece of spying I’ve come across in a while. I disliked Diana through nearly every line of the book, and in that moment of eavesdropping and peeping-Tomishness I hated her as much as any character I’ve seen in a book in months. Maybe years. (I hated her friend Suralee, too, but in the end not as much, I think, despite everything.) Diana’s selfishness and nastiness was a constant irritant, and pretty much all of the other characters did things that annoyed me deeply as well, leaving me in a fairly continual slow burn against all of them. I mean, you win a nice amount of money, and the first things you decide to buy are a typewriter and a bleeding canopy bed? What about an icebox to replace the ancient and malfunctioning one that took up just about the entirety of one chapter? (Dell turned out to be a horrific piece of work, but I still disliked Diana more.) (I did really like LaRue, at least.) And then the book climaxed with a piece of deus-ex-machina that made me roll my eyes so hard I think I hurt myself. It was terrible.
And, of course, a portion of the anger this book engendered in me was for The System. That’s what makes it impossible for a mother and daughter to afford the coverage of care they need and still manage to buy groceries. But their social worker was portrayed as earnest, honestly trying to help – and the three of them in that house made almost a game out of pulling the wool very thoroughly over her eyes.
Now, the book is based on a true story; a woman wrote to Elizabeth Berg asking her to write her mother’s story. Berg warned her that she would fictionalize it, using only elements of the real story – basically, I think the whole background. Which leaves me with two big questions. Is the woman who sent that letter to Berg happy with how incredibly awful Diana (basically the letter-writer) is in the book? And was that shockingly stupid climax remotely, unbelievably true? I wish Berg had made that clear; if anything like what happened in the book actually happened to the woman who wrote her, my dislike would be at least slightly abated.
I listened to this in CD format, read by the author. I was uncertain about how well it would be read, but hoped that, having written the book, Berg would be 100% accurate with emphasis and intonation – who would know better than Elizabeth Berg how her book should be read? As it turned out, she wasn’t 100% accurate; there were definitely instances of the wrong word being stressed in a sentence, and so on – but it was overall very good.
I think, though, that I might have learned that one amazing book does not necessarily mean I’ll love everything a writer writes.