What We Keep–Elizabeth Berg

 

Berg builds up a horrific incident that happened in the childhood of her protagonist, Ginny, in the summer she was 12.  The narrative flashes between a modern day flight to California and Ginny’s childhood.  Ginny reveals herself to be a highly involved, maybe overly involved, mother of two daughters and she reflects on her relationship with her mother and her older sister the summer that Jasmine, a single and exotic woman, moved in next to them.

Ginny is so angry with her mother and so bitter 35 years later that I assumed the incident was terrible.  The incident was mundane.  Ginny’s mother left her father.  She came back after a few weeks and wanted to establish shared parenting with their father, but the girls refused.  Ginny and her sister are only now visiting her for the first time in 35 years because Ginny’s older sister may be dying of cancer. 

Berg evokes the world of a 12-year-old girl with great realism but, perhaps because our world is full of tragedies so much more tragic than this one, when she finally reveals the “horrible crime” of Ginny’s mother, I was left saying to myself, “really?  That’s what all this drama was about?” 

It was the 50s and even today moms aren’t usually the ones to leave the house and the children, but still. 

The best part of the novel was Berg’s reflection on mothers and daughters and the expectations daughters have of their mothers that make the whole relationship so fraught and complicated.  Maybe that’s the story’s genius–that it reveals that what was an unforgiveable crime to a daughter is so thoroughly understandable and forgiveable to anyone else.

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