Guest Review: HOME SAFE by Elizabeth Berg

I am in a book lull right now. I am not enjoying the book I am reading… it’s not drawing me in, and I don’t look forward to reading it. I think I am going to set it aside, which is something I rarely do, and move on to something else.

I circled a book in BookPage a few weeks ago called Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Berg is one of those authors that I always see in bookstores, but I’ve never read anything by her. Home Safe looked good: a successful novelist tries to cope with the death of her husband while she learns some secrets about him and tries to make sense of them. BookPage calls Home Safe “a perceptive and sensitively written novel – a compassionate, illuminating narrative that examines the nature of love and the process of grieving.”

EDIWTB reader Nancy West wrote a guest review of Home Safe for the blog – here it is! Thanks, Nancy!

Berg I can’t think of a novel with a nicer protagonist than Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Helen Ames is simply one of the kindest, most well-meaning characters ever to serve as centerpiece of a work of fiction.  Here’s my favorite example out of many: struggling with a difficult relationship with her 27-year-old daughter, frustrated by writer’s block and heading into her first holiday season as a widow, Helen looks out a train window as she travels through the dark en route to her parents’ home for Christmas. “Every now and then, there is a house with a light on. She strains to see the people there, and across what seems a vast distance, she wishes them all well.” She wishes them all well? All the strangers whose houses are visible from the train tracks between Chicago and St. Paul? But yes, that’s just the kind of person Helen is. Blessed with personal happiness and creative success, she seems to have no greater priority than the general well-being of all of mankind.

A successful novelist living in the Chicago suburbs, Helen has enjoyed a wonderful marriage to a dear man who dies suddenly of a heart attack when Helen is 59. His loss reveals to her just how much she feels incompetent at managing, from personal finances to home repairs to effectively parenting the couple’s one child. And although it hasn’t been all that long – less than a year, when the novel begins – her friends and daughter are already expressing their concern that she isn’t bouncing back as quickly as she should. It doesn’t help that writer’s block is clouding a previously successful career or that none of the prompts that previously inspired her writing are working for her anymore. (The insider’s view of a novelist’s work life, including her rivalries with colleagues, her feelings about teaching, and how it feels to fail miserably at a speaking engagement, are an added attraction to the story.)

Though she doesn’t use the term, we can imagine Helen identifying herself as part of the sandwich generation, worrying about her 20-something daughter – a single magazine editor whom Helen would dearly like to see settled down with a husband – and her elderly parents, always a source of succor but gradually experiencing declines in their own health. What everyone except Helen seems to realize, though, is that the people Helen worries about are all managing their lives much better than she is; she would be better off tending to her own emotions than assuming they need her ministries.

Into the situation falls a bit of a mystery: Helen’s accountant calls to say that the retirement account that she believed held nearly a million dollars is nearly empty. Helen is bewildered as she contemplates all the possible ways her husband could have spent $850,000 before his death without telling her. Though she acknowledges all the tawdry possibilities – bigamy, blackmail, gambling – none of them seem likely to her. Soon enough, the mystery is solved for her, but it only serves to open up a new sphere of questions and decisions to ponder – even as the healing process gradually begins and Helen meets new friends, contemplates life changes and tries to return to her writing.