Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fiction: The Art of Mending

One of my book groups recently read The Art of Mending. This was the second Elizabeth Berg novel I've read, and I was once again pleasantly surprised by this talented writer who kept me reading long past my usual bedtime.

The Art of Mending is a story about family relationships. The narrator, Laura, is a 50-ish woman who is happily married with two teen-aged children. She, her brother, and her sister all head back to their childhood home, as they do every year, to stay with their parents and attend the state fair. This year is different, though, as her younger sister confronts her with stories of a childhood completely different than what Laura remembers, and the entire family tries to deal with an unexpected tragedy. The novel follows Laura's family as they struggle to understand, forgive, and begin to heal.

It's a testament to Berg's skill as a writer that I related so well to Laura, despite the fact that the events in the novel have little relation to my own life. She has a way of giving her characters such depth that you can't help but identify with at least some of their thoughts and feelings. I kept marking passages as I read, sentences and paragraphs that seemed to perfectly reflect my own view of the world, like:
"...No matter what anyone said, it seemed to me that not only can you go home again, you are helpless not to."
"There are random moments...when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead."

All of the women in my book group enjoyed this book and had no trouble finishing it in time for our meeting (a rare occurrence with our busy lives!). I, and several others, especially liked the unique way that Berg wove together the past and the present. Throughout the novel are brief descriptions of old family photos, providing insight into literal snapshots of Laura's childhood without the distortion of her memories or current perspectives. In this way, the reader slowly develops an understanding of the siblings' childhood and how it affects each of them today.

The title of the novel refers to Laura's passion for sewing, and especially quilting, and the analogy of mending family relationships:
"As for mending, I think it's good to take the time to fix something rather than throw it away. It's an antidote to wastefulness and the need for immediate gratification.....You'll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there's an art to mending: If you're careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing, because it is testimony to its worth."

One woman in my book group remarked that the passages about sewing, fabrics, and quilting were especially compelling for her, since she, her mother,and her grandmother had sustained a long family tradition of quilting. I found this statement interesting, since no one in my family can sew at all (we're more into cooking!), yet I thoroughly enjoyed the book also. This is Elizabeth Berg's talent: to tell an interesting story in a way that makes every reader feel she is speaking to you personally.