UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG
By Elizabeth Berg
Random House. 241 pp. $23
Elizabeth Berg's sixth novel is what used to be called, and in some circles perhaps still is, a "women's book." As promotional copy for it says, "Reading Elizabeth Berg is like having a best friend sit down in your kitchen and talk with you about issues important in women's lives," or, as a reviewer of one of her earlier novels put it: "Truth rings out clearly from every page. Berg captures the way women think . . . as well as any writer."
Not being a woman, I am imperfectly equipped to pass judgment on that aspect of Berg's work, but it seems to me that women--men, too, for that matter--would find it good-hearted and well-intentioned but also sappy and slick. If this has to do with "the way women think," perhaps it is in the same way that the techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy have to do with "the way men think," i.e., some men really do think that way, and sometimes all men think that way, but all men don't think that way all the time.
Or, to put it another way, it seems to me most unlikely that all women will find that "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" speaks for, or to, them. It is the story of a 36-year-old woman, Patty Murphy, who works in real estate in a suburb of Boston and whose greatest longing is to find Mr. Right, marry him and have babies with him:
"It hurts like a knife blade, this longing. If anyone knew how often I think about having a baby, I'd die of embarrassment. Which would take care of the problem, at least. But my plan is to not have it come to that. My plan is to get going right now in a very scientific and purposeful way that will lead to marriage and pregnancy. A husband and a child. The specifics of the plan I'm not too clear about. Only the intention."
In fact she has found Mr. Right, loves him madly, indeed was for a time engaged to him. His name is Ethan Allen Gaines: "I fell in love with him in sixth grade, and I never, never stopped loving him, not even after we tried to have a serious relationship in our late twenties and failed, and he took me out to a very nice place to break off our engagement and told me it was because he was gay."
So there you have it: a thirtysomething career woman (albeit a most unsuccessful one), a homosexual ex-boyfriend, a mother who comes down with Alzheimer's, various friends afflicted with AIDS, a best friend (Elaine) who horns in on Patty's tentative romance with another man, a background cluttered with movies and pop music and upscale product names . . . just how '90s can you get? Not to mention the whining:
"I get up, go into the living room, turn on all the lights. It is so quiet I swear I can hear the disturbance in the air every time I move. The darkness does not dissipate, but only seems pushed up into the corners of the room, where it hangs, vulturelike. I sit on the sofa, pull my knees up to my chest, rest my chin on them. Sniff. Think: I am thirty-six years old and no one knows me, not one person, really. Not my family. Not Elaine. Not Ethan. My mind catches on this last one. Because Elaine may not know the realest, deepest me, but Ethan does. There has always been a kind of holding back in me from Elaine. I can't help this particular smallness of heart; find me one woman who doesn't withhold just a bit from another woman who looks like that."
Et cetera. Berg works very hard--you can hear the gears changing and the machinery cranking--to make Patty endearing and appealing, but she mainly comes across as unrelievedly self-involved; what's meant to come across as her self-mocking humor looks for all the world like sniveling. Probably there are readers who will be able to connect with Patty in ways that I cannot, and presumably they will identify with her pain and the way she ameliorates it, but I found her unsympathetic and off-putting and did not enjoy being in her company.
On one count, though, Berg does things just right. It is not giving away the important details of her plot to note that she does not permit Patty to "convert" Ethan from homosexuality to heterosexuality. She sets up the situation in a way that seems to be leading in that direction, but declines to fall into the trap. In this respect if not many others, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" is true to reality rather than to the conventions of "women's books," 1990s-style.
Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.