Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #55: The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

This was my first encounter with Berg, and I was deeply affected by both her writing and her choice of theme. This is the story of an apparently ordinary family with deeply-hidden secrets and rifts that have been papered over, but not without terrible cost. And whether or not there was physical or emotional abuse in your family, you will read this and be touched deeply, knowing that none of us can escape unscathed from the tragedies of those around us.

Happily-married Laura and her family are planning their regular annual family reunion at her parents’ home, when she gets a call from her younger sister Caroline asking for a private meeting with Laura and brother Steven during the course of the family visit. Laura reluctantly agrees, fearing that the perpetually depressed and socially awkward Caroline will put a damper on the gathering. Our narrator is Laura, and through her memories, we get glimpses of her parents’ marriage and of her relationship with her siblings that fill in the picture of something “not quite right.” Laura’s mother was a stunning model who lived by her looks and the magnetic effect those looks had on people, including her own family. She is emotionally cold, but her husband is besotted with her. Nonetheless, Laura feels she had a happy and normal childhood, as does brother Steven. Caroline was the “difficult” child, spending her earlier years idolizing her mother and alienating her siblings, and her later years despising her mother and fighting a downhill battle with depression and self-doubt. Making it worse is that Caroline is now in the throes of a divorce, as well.

It is not until the siblings have gathered that Caroline describes terrible scenes of both emotional and physical abuse by her mother, which Laura and Steven at first deny outright and then slowly come to recognize as truth. And then their father is killed by a sudden stroke in the course of the family reunion, forcing Laura in particular to have to grapple with all of their roles in the revealed family tragedy of which Caroline was the victim, including that of her beloved father who covered up his wife’s behavior for years. Berg uses a particularly effective technique of interspersing her chapters with musings by Laura over old family photos, in which Caroline’s isolation from the rest of her family is suddenly all too visible.

What I found especially poignant is that adult Laura, until now wrapped in a middle-aged cocoon of marital and maternal contentment, is now faced not only with Caroline’s painful revelations and the fact of her lifelong silent suffering, but also the uncomfortable truths about Laura’s own responsibility in the family drama. Laura’s discomfort, her anger, her guilt, and her yearning to return to the familiar cocoon are feelingly and authentically portrayed. The ultimate confrontation between Caroline and her mother—when it comes—is both subtle and healing, and left this reader, at least, in grateful tears.

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