Year of Pleasures, Elizabeth Berg

So, number one on the aforementioned Winter Book List ticked off and read: The Year of Pleasures, by the author Elizabeth Berg.

Look at the delicious looking food on the cover :)

I bought this novel from Third Place Books in Ravenna, Seattle.

I read this on the plane ride home for Christmas holiday. It was quick and enjoyable, and I only got my pen out three times, a record low for me in recent years.

That isn’t to say that it was boring, however. I’ll call it subdued, but I didn’t mind that for this type of story. I thought the message embedded in the novel was that living for oneself, and living the best life possible, is never a mistake, while wallowing in grief or pain is a definite mistake, and in fact destroys the pleasure in life.

Good point.

Betta, the main character in the novel, seems to know this pretty well. She is a writer, after all. However, it is with the death of her husband that she is forced to really recognize the importance of living her own life, for herself.

Although Betta herself seemed a bit dull as a character exploration, despite hints throughout the novel at her bravery, adventurous nature, and creativity, her personal story, and the idea of the novel itself was beautifully executed from a writer’s perspective.

My favorite parts:

  1. Female empowerment. The lifelong female friendships portrayed and discussion of women giving of themselves for each other and for loved ones, sometimes at the expense of simple pleasures in life was well-done. While not as dramatic as it could have been, I appreciated that Berg had addressed this issue, one that rings true for many womens’ lives. For example, Betta realizes that she can play music that she hasn’t listened to for years in compromise to her husband’s taste. She can eat when and whatever she likes, and etc. She is, in a way, beautifully freed by his death.

Even though there is some sadness and pain alluded to, Betta is in no way portrayed as tortured over the loss of her husband. At the same time however, the reader’s sense of her freedom is lessened by the narrator’s constant mention of her husband.  She does often wonder if he would approve, and most of the time, he does. I wanted to know, why does it matter?

It was Betta’s story, not his, and at times I felt it was the author’s sense of duty to Betta’s husband, rather than Betta’s. We get a sense as readers that he was a kind and loving man, who showered Betta with thoughtful support and encouragement. However, we as readers don’t actually know him as a character. While it’s expected that Betta will think of him, I felt like some of the narrative reminders of her husband were forced, and made Betta less of an interesting character.

The language on a sentence level was often lush in description, rich in parallel construction (I am a sucker for parallel construction), and done with an elegant respect for language.

  1. I brought out my pen to underline beautiful sentences, something I usually only do in workshop. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading nineteenth century lit. However, since that is the area I research, I usually take out my pen much more often and underline a few beautiful sentences, while focusing primarily on the social constructions of gender, national identity, or class commentaries in the novels I read from my research period.

That being said, those elements of interest still existed in this novel as well. They were just couched in simple and elegant language, and they were more overarching and systematic, inherent to the very nature of the novel itself, as opposed to statement after statement, passage by passage.

  1. The descriptions of food and cooking- YUMMY.

Problematic elements of the novel:

  1. White upper class privilege. It was practically screaming at me. Betta is a white woman from the East coast, and the most financial trouble she seems to have ever endured in her life is during a hippy phase in college. I feel like this might be one of the only explanations of why she seems so lackluster despite the allusions to her interesting personality. She never has really suffered until her husband’s death, and even then, she is a millionaire who can do whatever she pleases. It seemed just a little too convenient, and a little too boring.
  2. She moves to the Midwest, outside of Chicago, so she can experience the “simple” life. I am from the Midwest, and am in fact on a visit there while I write this. I still don’t know how “big city” people, like the fictional Betta, can romanticize it as much as they seem to, while deriding it all the same. I wish Berg would have more deeply imagined her characters from Betta’s new Midwestern town a bit more as well. Many of them were hollow representations. There were a couple that could have been interesting, and Betta only has a few interactions with the most interesting one (the old woman with spunk and history who she buys her new home from). Since it was Betta’s dream to move to the Midwest and open a knickknack store, and her personal goal to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, you’d think that the people in the town she moves to would be painted a bit more clearly. They were not, because they apparently didn’t matter in Betta’s egocentric “search for herself.”
  3. The other problem I had with the novel was that even though Betta and her former husband were supposed to be the main focus, they were so dull that I just really didn’t care. Her old college friends and some of the characters even just mentioned from the town she arrives in seemed much more interesting than Betta herself.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite the small disappointments, and in its optimism I can see why it sold well. The writing tone and style was warm and inviting, and Berg treats her characters very kindly.

I would recommend the novel if you are in the mood for a quick read that is not complete trash, that has some literary merit without being actually literary, and that focuses on renewal and new beginnings.

I would not recommend it if you get jealous easily, since I think it is very easy to envy the fictional Betta and her cushy gushy, yet lonely and somewhat dull life.

It gets 3.3 of 5 stars from me purely for entertainment purposes and beautiful sentences.

Read with a DR. Pepper (a drink that gets mentioned so many times you start to crave it) and Indian food leftovers (because it’s something Betta might eat, and because they are simply delicious).  Or, herbal tea and a fruit pie, which is also discussed in the novel often.

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