In Elizabeth Berg’s novel Home Safe: A Novel, we are almost immediately plunged into the world of loss. It begins in the preface, when, as a nine-year-old girl, Helen Ames experiences the death of a classmate: she describes everything she sees, up close, from the hands on a wristwatch to the top of the mother’s head and the sound of her weeping – and completely immersed in this experience, she becomes obsessed with these details. And then she describes: “Nothing helped until the day she took a tablet and pencil into the basement and moved the event out of her and onto paper, where it was shaped into a kind of simple equation: loss equaled the need to love, more. With this, she was given peace.”
Predictably, this is the onset of this writer’s life. And we meet her again, some years later, when she is struggling with losses all around her – from her husband’s death months before, to the elusiveness of her daughter, to the struggle she now faces to find the words that once flowed so freely – and we begin again. The journey to reshape the events of loss and make some kind of sense of her life in the present.
As I delved into this Berg novel, I realized again why I await each of her creations so eagerly. She has the uncanny ability to draw the reader in. Partly because her topics are cut from the cloth of daily life and shaped with such detail that we can immediately feel part of what’s going on with the characters – their innermost thoughts, fears, and even those negative emotions we all feel in some moments of our lives – and then we can watch as the characters struggle to reshape their world into a semblance of a new reality despite their losses.
So this is how we observe and learn about Helen Ames, her daughter Tessa, and the relationships that formed them – before and after these significant losses. Somewhat emotionally dependent on her husband, Helen begins to form an over-dependence on her daughter afterwards; Tessa chafes against the smothering bonds and moves further away emotionally.
Helen flails about, fearing she will drown in this new life. Sometimes she stays in her pajamas all day while she desperately tries to pound words out of the computer, to no avail. She even considers a job in retail sales, but thinks better of it. She goes to a speaking engagement – something familiar to her in the past as a writer – but cannot even connect with her audience. Her words seem to lie there in the air, with no visible reaction from the listeners.
Then, just when she thought nothing could get any worse, she discovers that substantial sums are missing from their retirement accounts. And her search for clues leads nowhere. At least she has an action to take, she thinks, as she plunges into trying to uncover the mystery. Then she receives a phone call, and the trail takes her on a very strange journey.
Now what will happen? Will Helen finally be able to reshape the events of her life and begin again? And will she rediscover that bond with her daughter, or at least develop a new one? Then, for those of us who are writers, we wonder if she will regain her “words” to create again.
I was actually sad to turn the last pages to the book’s conclusion. As with all of Berg’s other novels, I felt like I belonged in the world of the characters and did not want to see the last of them. Definitely a must-read for any of her fans, and all those out there who love reading as “comfort” food.