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Ruth is dieing and her friends are breaking their hearts over it. Ruth has advanced breast cancer, which has progressed to her bones, her lungs and finally her brain, yet she still stays strong and, for a while at least, hopeful. Her best friend, Ann who narrates the story, is doing all she physically can to keep Ruth in her own comfortable home until the end. In the meantime she feels guilty about leaving her husband, Joe and her nine-year-old daughter, Meggie, to cope on their own while she stays at nights with Ruth. Of course Ruth has other friends and they all help out in their own ways, but it's Ann who has that special bond and the trust that's a necessary part of coping.
Initially it seems that the friends will be enough to keep Ruth as comfortable as possible. She has an ex-husband and a grown-up son, Michael, who understands the need for women sticking together at such a time, but Ruth's brother Andrew, is upset because she isn't choosing to die with him, after all, their parents are dead and they are family. Whatever the outcome, Ruth isn't going to survive but can she die with peace and dignity?
This is the premise of Elizabeth Berg's novel, 'Talk before sleep,' in which she explores the question I think we all need to think about at some point in our lives whether it's about our own death or that of a wife, a husband, child, or parent, sibling or friend. It's also a long look at the way in which women can be strong even in the toughest of situations and smile when their hearts are breaking. Even more than this, though, it's about how you live your life, not your death. We are all on that trip, be it slow or sudden, expected or a surprise, the outcome is still the same, shock, horror, disbelief and terrible, tugging, miserable heartache.
No, I haven't made a mistake, the book is character-driven but to talk about characters is somehow rather weak. I see the people in the book as each playing a part in the greatest mystery of all, what happens when a loved one is about to die. Will one character stumble and fall, or another refuse to believe it's happening. What about Ruth's own character, how does her expectations colour the story? Colour it blue, read it as a story, live it as it's happening, it's an exceptional story from any angle.
In one chapter Ann makes an observation about Ruth's friends, 'Ruth has friends like other people have wardrobes. I mean there's someone for every occasion.'
Sarah is the managerial type, smart, sophisticated, well dressed with all the answers and the know-how to get things done, those things others don't want to talk about, funerals and such.
L.D. is the butch woman who is probably a lesbian but it's only implied. She's rock-solid, simple as in unaffected, and a big-boned woman who wears men's clothes and expects Ruth to fight herself well again.
Then there's Helen, perhaps Ruth's oldest friend and a beautiful woman with a hint of Cherokee ancestry, a woman of great wisdom and peacefulness.
What can I say about Ann? She is such a presence in the book that she needs a chapter to herself.
As with all character-driven books this is told in short chapters each with a small message or a simple day spent idly talking, only in Ruth's case nothing now is idle, every day alive is a bonus. But the author never descends to bathos to get her message over. This is a gentle tale about the strength of friendship and the way women talk together.
One chapter tells the story of how Ann meets Ruth later on in life, after they are both married and before Ruth leaves her husband, Eric, to live alone. By then she'd already had one bout of breast cancer and thought it gone. Ann tells us that it was hate at first sight. Ruth had everything that Ann wasn't. She was smart and feisty, flirty with a large male audience. Poor Ann felt that she could never be as petite, as surrounded by love as Ruth was. This is how they talk together, each opening out and talking about feelings, sometimes surprising each other by their revelations.
Other times the women are all together, eating junk food and sitting on Ruth's bed laughing and joking about past boyfriends, indiscretions, mistakes and mishaps. Other times it's a dreamy sort of gathering with the talk much gentler, exposing deeper feelings, the hopes and dreams we all have but rarely talk about in a simple and straightforward manner. Of course they squabble at times. They get jealous and hit out in their grief. Sometimes there is even that element of feeling left out when someone is seriously ill and getting a lot of attention.
Elizabeth Berg is a new author to me and her writing style is tremendously familiar in the way it makes me think of things in her way. I found myself agreeing with Ann's comments or her memories, especially when she describes the simple pleasure of slipping into a cool, clean bed with tired body and mind soothed by the scent of fresh laundry. Her memories of her mother's white sheets billowing on the line and comparing them with Ruth's white cotton sheets and her Laura Ashley style.
I also felt every moment of her times alone by Ruth wondering if each breath would be her last. I sat with my own mother thirteen hours as she left this life. I could remember all this in a peaceful way, not as I used to with bitter regret that I hadn't done enough. If this all sounds a bit depressing then don't be put off. It's an uplifting story as well with loads of humour, especially at the men who sometimes get a bad deal. I think the descriptions of feelings are handled extremely well with a touching sparsety that left me crying more than a long drawn-out paragraph would.
It's pretty obvious what will eventually happen with the story. Any story about such a subject can only end in death. It's how that is handled that makes this such a stylish read and I mean that in a good way. So many authors could make a meal of this, but Berg handles each part of this process with a deftness of a much more proven author would. This is possibly because she was a nurse before she turned to writing and would have experience with such tenderness. Somehow I get the feeling she is just one of those authors born to write in a certain way that touches the heart and mind.
Do I recommend this book? Whole-heartedly. This isn't chick-lit, but it's probably more a women's book. It's also a book for every one of us who have ever lost someone so dear to us that we walked around in a daze for ages after, wondering if life would ever be the same again. It's for the woman in us all, the friend, the lover, the one who holds out a hand and captures your heart.
I am not sure where this book comes in the author's list of books. She's written many and I hope to read as many as I can. I do hope you won't find my review too sad and thanks for reading.
This is available on Amazon for £6.25 at the time of writing. My copy was another charity shop find.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.