A writer in search of words and love

Elizabeth Berg is the author of the novel ''Home Safe.'' Elizabeth Berg is the author of the novel ''Home Safe.'' (C. Joyce Ravid)
By Linda K. Wertheimer
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2009
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Some of the best fiction plants us in someone else's life and forces us to keep turning the pages no matter how minute the details. Elizabeth Berg, who is expert at that technique, has produced one of her most honest and intimate novels with "Home Safe."

Main character Helen Ames, like Berg, is an accomplished novelist. Helen, who at 60 is also approaching Berg's age, confronts a writer's biggest dilemma. She can no longer put words to paper. At the same time, she is recovering from her husband's unexpected death of barely a year ago.

The story revolves around Helen's search for meaning in life and her contentious yet loving relationship with her 27-year-old daughter, Tessa.

Sucking us in with earthy but elegant prose, Berg immediately stirs empathy for Helen as she toys with the idea of becoming a sales clerk at Anthropologie. Her daughter thinks the idea is ridiculous. Helen, though, is desperate to find something to eradicate her malaise.

"Without her husband or the practice of laying out words on a page, she feels that she spends her days rattling around inside herself; that, whereas she used to be a whole and happy woman, now she is many pieces of battered self, slung together in a sack of skin."

In an October 2008 blog entry on her website, the author says that "Home Safe" is "about a lot of things: a writer who has encountered writer's block in the wake of her husband's death, and who also has found out that her husband withdrew a huge sum of money from their retirement account before he died and she doesn't know why. . . . It's about a controlling mother who won't let up on her daughter and needs to just BACK OFF. . . . It's about understanding that 60 years old is too late to grow up, but hey."

One flaw in the novel is that the plot occasionally rambles. The beginning describes Helen's penchant for writing at age 9 and how she recorded her memories of a classmate's drowning and the bereaved mother. Berg writes a vivid scene that seems to carry huge importance, yet the incident never resurfaces.

The book at times becomes part novel, part writing workshop. Helen does not get the job at the clothing store so she agrees to teach writing to a group of adults. In these fictional classes, Berg incorporates some of the same exercises she put in her nonfiction work, "Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True." She also includes some of the fictional students' writing samples, stalling the plot some.

Helen's epiphany in class one day leads to one of the book's most poignant passages. "She watches them eagerly scribble their assignment down, and becomes aware of some kind of spreading warmth inside her. At first she is alarmed, wondering what that is. But then she recognizes it. Happiness."

The writing is simple, beautiful, and ever so real. The conversations of Helen, her daughter, and all of the book's characters seem genuine. You can envision Berg sitting with a notepad eavesdropping on people in a coffee shop, the same practice Helen suggests to her students.

A writer of so many readable gems, Berg again has shown her deftness.

Linda K. Werthheimer, a freelance writer in Lexington, is the Globe's former education editor.

HOME SAFE By Elizabeth Berg

Random House, 260 pp., $25

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