What We Keep
By: Elizabeth Berg
Ballantine Publishing, May 25, 1999
Buy Link: http://www.amazon.com/What-We-Keep-Ballantine-Readers/dp/0345423291/
I acquire books in many ways: A few are given to me as gifts, some I buy brand new, others I swap for at the used book store, occasionally I trade books with friends and many times I pick them up at yard sales. I am always on the lookout for a good read. I don’t know how I came across What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg nor do I remember how long I’ve had it sitting on my shelf. Inside the front cover is an address label for Helen B. Sawyer from the state of Vermont. I don’t know Helen and wonder when she put her label in the book. Did she take it on vacation and mistakenly leave it behind? Did she loan the book to a friend in hopes of getting it back? I will never know, but I set aside my twinge of guilt for reading her book realizing that if she thought it was worthy of a return label I should give it a try. I’m glad I did. I had never read any Elizabeth Berg books before this one, but I know I will be looking for her next time I visit a yard sale or book store.
What We Keep is a book about mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. It portrays evolving family dynamics, choices and changes. The book is mostly about a mother and her daughters, but my favorite relationship in the book is the one between the two sisters, Ginny and Sharla. Maybe it’s because I grew up sandwiched between sisters, but I always enjoy reading sister stories. In this case the relationship between the sisters comes across as very realistic. The story had some funny parts and in some sections I smiled to myself because I could see my sisters and I doing some of the very activities described by the author. The book is also sad and thought provoking. In this book the girls are having a carefree preteen summer until events align and the lazy days of a summer are interrupted by adult decisions that affect children in a life changing way. As the story unfolded I was captivated by the girl’s devotion to each other. Sure, they had their share of sibling rivalry and jealousy, but underneath it all they were fiercely devoted to each other. I love that relationship. On the surface it seems the Young’s have an ideal family but when free spirited Jasmine moves in next door, mother’s feelings of dullness and depression come to the surface.
The story flips back and forth between two perspectives. We hear from twelve year old Ginny who experiences the abandonment of her mother alternated with 47 year old Ginny who has been coaxed into flying to visit her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in 35 years. Ginny and Sharla were abandoned and betrayed together. Ginny and Sharla together travel the road to understanding and forgiveness. Both girls had given up on a relationship with their mother (Marion) years ago, but are making the trip nonetheless. It was Sharla’s idea to reconcile and Ginny only agrees to go because she suspects her sister might have cancer. Devoted as she is, she can’t let Sharla face mother alone after all these years. As Ginny’s flight wings its way west, she spends her time remembering her childhood: the time of happiness before things fell apart, the events that led to mother leaving and even her part in the prolonged estrangement. Most of the novel is told in flashbacks to childhood during the plane ride.
While reading the book I found myself sympathizing with Ginny and Sharla. I felt terribly sad that they went through their teen years without their mother. I really wanted them to reconcile with their mother early on. They desperately wanted her back at first, but she was off finding herself. As time passed they settled into a new routine and grew angry and distant. When mother felt ready to try again it was a case of not wanting the same things at the same time. I understood Marion’s plight but not her decision. I was angry with her choice but still felt compassion for her in her sorrow for her loneliness. She walked out and left her family and by the time she came back the circle had been closed and her efforts to regain a position in the family were not accepted. Of course the girls didn’t know the whole story and we eventually learn that what they thought to be true was tainted with a childlike perspective and purposeful omission of facts. In an effort to leave them one stable parent, mother took the blame for the breakup of the family. By not adding sordid details or mentioning their father’s actions the girls saw her as the sole villain. Father’s silence and her omission led the girls to place 100% of the blame at her feet. The truth comes out at the end of the story and looking back with a fresh perspective isn’t easy for the girls. Sometimes one has to look back to move ahead. The story reminds us that there are always two sides to every story and it is never too late to reconcile with a loved one.
I felt most of the characters were well developed and enjoyed getting to know them. For me the only drawback in character development in this book was father. Throughout most of the book he was just kind of there and pretty passive. We never really get a sense of his feelings, his struggles or his decisions. We learn things about him toward the end of the book ,but we don’t really know him. Since I didn’t know him or what he was thinking I could only be disappointed that he never admitted to his part in the breakup. It would have been nice to learn what he was thinking, as he sat in silence all these years. It seems cowardly of him to go to his grave content for his daughters to be alienated from their mother due to a partial truth. I may be taking it too far, but the revelation of his actions is something his adult daughters will now have to reconcile without the chance to talk to him: The hero dad they grew up with vs. the dad that played a real part in the destruction of the family. Nothing happens by itself and I think dad’s character could have been written a bit stronger and perhaps more insight given into his relationship with his wife and daughters.
Jasmine is a colorful character who adds a lot to the story. I enjoyed the addition of the teenaged character of Wayne to the story line and what it brought to the girl’s relationship. I was slightly disappointed that he didn’t reenter the story, as I was hoping we would at least get to see how his life turned out. I became sad when reading how dad tried to carry both roles after mother left. His attempts at cooking, shopping and listening were hard for the girls to accept because they so desperately wanted their mother for these duties. It was easy to understand how Ginny felt when her mom wasn’t there to go school shopping or to confide in the day she got her first period. The author drew the reader in by dealing sensitively with these emotions, which I believe are felt by all daughters who lose a mother.
This book touches on many issues affecting women in their relationships with each other. It explores the role of mother, sister, wife and friend. It touches on the hidden woman behind the happy smile, the artist within and the darkness of depression.
I found What We Keep to be an interesting story from start to finish. I enjoyed Berg’s descriptions in the story. I could visualize the town and the time period as she detailed houses, stores, clothing, cars and food of the 1950′s. It is a short book that could easily be read in one or two sittings. When I was about three quarters of the way finished, I thought I knew just how it would end. I was pleased to see that it was not as predictable as I thought. Although not a new release I think this would be an enjoyable summer novel for those who have not yet read it.
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