Carolyn See reviews ‘Once Upon a Time, There Was You’ by Elizabeth Berg

May 5, 2011

Let me just ask you this: Your 18-year-old daughter, Sadie, hasn’t given you any real trouble so far, but you can tell you’re getting on her nerves. (You, in this case, are a high-strung, divorced woman named Irene.) Of course, your daughter adores her absent dad, John, who does nothing much but be charming and pay the bills.

Anyway, this beautiful, somewhat aloof daughter who is going off to college in September, leaving you stuck in the proverbial empty nest, tells you she’s going to be spending the weekend rock climbing with friends.

She’s evasive, but then she’s always evasive, and that’s probably because you’ve been an overprotective control freak, especially since your divorce. But Sadie, to repeat, is 18. In theory, no, in practice, she can do anything she wants. But in recent years, you’ve become a prisoner of love, a parent who has slipped somehow into being a little bit in love with your daughter, instead of just loving her in the steady unromantic way that parents ought to do.

Of course, the reader knows that Sadie, still a virgin even in this madcap day and age, is going to spend the weekend with her new boyfriend, Ron. She likes him very much, and he likes her, but he’s been oddly reticent lately. He obviously wants to sleep with her, but he’s been hesitating, and she doesn’t know what that’s about. But here’s the big night, apparently, coming up! Saturday morning and she’s told her mom (you) that she’s going rock climbing because she doesn’t want you to ruin everything by looking at the downside, criticizing and fretting as you so often do. In this case, you’ve been overridden anyway. Your best friend says, of course, Sadie should go. You ex-husband says he’ll back Sadie up on this.

So here is Sadie on Page 76, shivering on a street corner in a strong San Francisco breeze, waiting for Ron to pick her up (and if you think I’m spending too much time on this, you have another think coming). Ron is late; he won’t answer his cellphone, and he ignores her texts. She’s annoyed and afraid of being rejected, and she certainly can’t go home to her prying, overprotective mother (that would be you). So, when a cute guy drives by, saying he’s a location scout looking for a local diner, and offers her a lift, she gets in, partly because “he actually gets out of the car to open the door for her.”

And then, and this is because Elizabeth Berg is such an adroit and precise writer, the story takes an utterly sickening lurch. Sadie finds herself in a car with a man who threatens her with a box cutter, blindfolds her with her own blouse and drives her for miles and miles up into some hills where he locks her into a shed. “I’ll be back with your new best friend,” he says menacingly. “I want you to be really, really nice to him. Creative.” Sadie is locked up for days, while the other characters here blithely go on with their lives.

Well, Sadie gets out. In the police station, she decides not to call her mom first, but Ron. They spend some intense time together and decide to get married. Only then do they go home and tell Sadie’s mother.

So, I’m asking, what would you do? Would you thank your stars that your daughter has escaped from this terrible criminal, cherish her, weep, bring in medical attention and try to find out as much as you can about her unspeakable experience? Or would you commence a book-long rant about how unsuitable it is for your daughter to have gotten married?

Granted, it’s been clear all along that Irene is a strange duck. Her tragedy is that she’s a terrific homemaker, but she can’t love anybody — with the exception of her daughter. She writes obnoxiously fey personal ads to find boyfriends, freaks out repeatedly about getting old and consoles herself by re-ironing “her large collection of vintage handkerchiefs. . . . She likes carrying clean and pressed hankies in a sandwich bag in her purse; it has happened more than once that she has come upon someone crying.” But mainly she complains about Sadie being married. Not a word about her daughter’s extended nightmare in the shed.

Again, I’m just asking, what would you do? If you’d pitch a fit about your daughter getting married after all that’s happened to her, by all means read this book and pull out the steam iron and your stack of vintage handkerchiefs. But if you’d be horrified at the very idea of your daughter alone for days in a shed waiting for her rapist, stay away from this novel. You’ll tear out your hair in clumps.

See reviews books for The Post every month.

ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS YOU

By Elizabeth Berg

Random House. 280 pp. $26

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