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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review of OPEN HOUSE by Elizabeth Berg

2 Stars
This is another of those Oprah Book Club selections that lacks substance. 

Samantha Morrow is a middle-aged upper class woman whose husband David leaves her after 20 years of marriage.  A stay-at-home mother (for 11-year-old Travis), she has made little effort to have a life outside her family; she seems to have only one friend.  For financial reasons, she decides she needs to take in lodgers – a 78-year-old woman, a depressed university student, and a gay hair stylist.   These three people, and a neighbour who befriends her, help her create a new life.

Sam was my problem with the book.  She is a very unlikeable character so it is difficult to have any sympathy for her.  She has a good life despite the fact that her marriage has fallen apart; even money does not seem to be a real issue.  Certainly, her marriage breakdown does not have the catastrophic consequences many women experience.  Furthermore, she is so self-absorbed, so self-centred, and so full of self-pity.  All she does is whine.  Her friend tells her, “’I don’t feel sorry for a victim who keeps choosing to be a victim.  That’s what you’re doing.  You’re not even trying.  You’re just sinking deeper into feeling sorry for yourself.’”  This is a perfect description of her and, as a result, she comes across as just pathetic. 

Sam is also such a shallow person.  She tells Travis about the divorce (after stupidly telling David she wanted to do it) but, instead of worrying about the impact of the news on her son, she frets about halitosis because her breath smells “of garlic for three days after she eats it,” about gray hair “popping out all over my head”, about cellulite, and about snoring.  She constantly comments on other people’s appearances. 

The book is full of stereotypes.  It is a black woman who begs on the street (though she has a “lovely face"); Sam’s employer at a laundromat is a Chinese man with “tea-coloured teeth” who speaks in broken English; it is a black man, whose “eyes are bloodshot,” who comes into the laundromat with a blaring boom box (though he is “handsome”); and the third lodger is a flamboyantly gay hair dresser who describes himself as “’a walking clich√©’” and when faced with danger says, “’We  need a man in the house!’”

The theme is anything but complex.  Samantha has to learn to appreciate the simple things.  And that message is repeated several times by several people:  Samantha thinks, “I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries. . . . This is the time in my life to do other things. . . . All right:  the red against the blue, the sound of the birds in the morning.  The sugar smell in bakeries.  The smoothness of fabric moving under my hands into the teeth of the sewing machine.  The movement of the ocean, the break of light every morning, every morning.”  And King says, “’I want to be appreciative of all that’s here, in a normal life.  I want to keep finding out about the things I see around me.’”  And Sam’s mother says, “’I think most young people today are so focused on tomorrow they forget all about today.’”

The plot is predictable.  It is obvious, from the first introduction of a character, that he will be Sam’s next romantic interest.  And that man is just too good to be true, a total contrast to the man who Sam says “almost” date-raped her.  The ending is just so optimistic and sentimental, exactly what the reader expects.

I wish I had not gone to this Open House.