Dream When Youre Feeling Blue
By Elizabeth Berg
Random House, 288 pp., $24.95
One of Elizabeth Berg's literary gifts is the ability to brilliantly reveal the special inner core of characters who tend to be fairly ordinary, realistically flawed people finding themselves in situations that test their mettle. As the novels progress, we empathize. We cheer their triumphs and bemoan their setbacks. We trace the deepening of their characters as they are transformed by circumstance, and by the end, we feel enriched and enlightened.
Berg's new "Dream When You're Feeling Blue," set in Chicago during World War II, is a leisurely read, charmingly old-fashioned and sweetly sentimental, but it misses the depth of insight we have come to count on from the author. It reads a little like a made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime channel -- entertaining in the moment, but ultimately unmemorable.
The book opens in 1943, as the Heaney sisters prepare to bid goodbye to their boyfriends heading off to war. Twenty-two-year -old Kitty, the main character, is not sure where she stands with boyfriend Julian, who has yet to profess his love. Twenty -year-old Louise has no such doubts -- she and Michael are head-over-heels, with marriage after the war clearly in their plans. At 17, Tish is still happily playing the field -- while secretly coveting Julian herself.
After Julian and Michael depart, the three women spend endless hours writing to them and to other soldiers they meet at the frequent round of USO dances. Night after night, they put pen to paper to pass on news and casual chat from back home, as the soldiers urge them to write "real cheerful and real often." But as Tish writes to every man she meets and Louise's relationship with Michael deepens through their heartfelt correspondence, Kitty struggles to think of things to write about to Julian. As a main character, Kitty disappointingly comes off as rather shallow and unimaginative.
But then Kitty meets Hank at a USO dance and finds herself drawn to the handsome soldier, though she insists she is committed to Julian. However, it is telling that she has no trouble finding things to write to Hank about, and the two become closer emotionally and intellectually the farther the war pulls them apart. When Kitty takes an exhausting job at an airplane factory and gets a taste of adult independence , she finally starts to grow stronger in body and spirit. "It wasn't just because of the change in her affections. Rather it was because of the way her ideas about herself had begun to change. She had believed for so long that she knew exactly who she was and what she wanted. "
There is no ringing epiphany or blazing revelation and little drama, save Louise's unexpected pregnancy. But to Berg's credit, there are also no stock caricatures either, no stalwart heroes or cartoon villains, just relatively normal folks getting by, and hopefully learning something along the way.
Berg paints a vivid and seemingly realistic picture of the life of a large Irish - American family of eight constantly scraping to get by . "Use it all, wear it out, make it do, or do without," is the mantra.
There is a quaint feel to Berg's tone, not just in the historical details, but in the way people talk, in the prose itself. There's a kind of naivete that seems incredulous viewed through our current lens, such as when Kitty ponders, "So much evil was suddenly in the world, so many impossible things happening. She wished she could grab Adolf Hitler by his ear and say, 'Stop that!' " And the unconvincing plot twist at the end undermines the novel's illumination of a burgeoning awareness of the need for women's equality in the workplace and the slowly eroding stigma of the single woman.
But the letters from the soldiers are compelling, especially those from Michael, who writes of the heart-churning, stomach - turning moments just before battle and the way the soldiers cope by thinking of home. "We need to keep a part of ourselves in some nice place, it's like our own private church inside us that we can go to anytime. We need to have that connection to home."