Sometimes families are made up of people whose connections are tenuous. The couple may have entered the union for all the wrong reasons, and this is definitely the case with John and Irene, in Once Upon a Time, There Was You: A Novel. Their responses to one another seem tepid. And yet they have a child and meander along for awhile before getting divorced.
A tragic event forces the two back together to help their daughter Sadie.
As in most Berg books, we get to read the detailed moments in their lives, with their thoughts, their feelings, and those fears and insecurities that still hold them captive in the “autumn” years of their lives. We also have a view of their reactions to one another as we watch how each of them is coping with what Sadie has gone through…and what she has thrown at them. Like this excerpt, in which Irene’s reaction to John is definitely no longer tepid:
“What fills Irene now is a wobbly kind of rage. She doesn’t know who to be angrier at, John or Sadie. Easy for him to show up and be the even-tempered mediator! Easy for him to be the part-time parent who gets to say yes to everything because he never has to suffer the consequences of what he allows! She is the real parent, and she will handle this. She wishes he’d never come. He won’t be of any use at all. He will make everything harder. `You keep out of this!’ she tells John. `You don’t even know what happened!'”
We also explore Sadie’s feelings about her “helicopter” mother who hovers and dominates. But what Sadie does to rebel turns into something so frightening that she doesn’t know how to react. So she does something completely drastic.
Living with the consequences of our choices is a theme that wends its way through the pages, even as we get to see the flaws and foibles of these characters, none of which are particularly lovable. I felt quite frustrated with Sadie, whose reactions seemed too childish for someone her age, but then again, with a domineering mother and an absent father, perhaps her behavior was not all that unsurprising.
Each character has difficulty expressing his or her feelings verbally, and when they interact, they often play games and lead with their emotions in “unhelpful” ways.
In true Berg form, we come to know the characters, inside and out, and discover small moments of insight as they work their way through what life throws at them. Five stars!