The prolific Berg (The Art of Mending, 2004, etc.) champions middle-aged craziness in an impossibly sunny soap opera.
Betta Nolan, 55 and a former children’s book author, sells her Boston townhouse after her beloved husband John dies of cancer—and sets out for the center of the country to see what happens next. It’s not purely whim that draws Betta to the Midwest; she and John had once dreamed of moving to that part of the country. “We had always been charmed by the people we’d met from there, and it seemed the right place to start a new life: exotic, at least to us, but not as difficult as, say, Prague.” Her Boston house sells for $1.9 million, so she won’t have to take a waitress job to make ends meet, and she eagerly plunks down a ridiculously low sum for a Victorian treasure in Stewart, Ill. There’s still the matter of filling up a life, however, and between bouts of grieving, Betta does just that by looking up three old friends from college, befriending a handsome college student with a bitchy, unworthy girlfriend, and opening the store John once suggested she call “What a Woman Wants.” Meanwhile, Betta tries to decipher the scrawled notes her psychiatrist husband left behind. The answer to their mystery, like all the other not-so-very complicated roadblocks in the way of Betta’s starting over, is expressed in a platitude (“There is love in holding. And there is love in letting go”) that only soapy characters could fathom or follow. “We’re all just here, blinking in the light like kittens,” Betta’s friend Maddy confides. “The older I get, the more I see that nothing makes sense but to try to learn true compassion.” What a woman wants, Betta discovers, is to have perfect things in a perfect place, shared with perfect—or at least perfectly interesting—friends. “You don’t dishonor the one you loved by being happy,” Betta learns.
Unhappiness, in Berg’s world, isn’t an option.