Since her first novel, "Durable Goods" (1993), Chicago author Elizabeth Berg has carved out a place as one of America's most beloved chroniclers of female friendship. Best known for the best-selling "Open House," an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000, Berg finds humor and pathos in the lives and loves of women, in particular their setbacks and recoveries. Along the way she has built a strong, mostly female readership that has aged and grown with her, which is to say gracefully.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Her new novel, "Tapestry of Fortunes," finds Berg, now 64, in an adventurous mood. It follows her heroine, a motivational speaker named Cecilia "Cece" Ross, who's struggling to navigate late middle age after suffering the loss of her best friend.
She downsizes her household and moves in with three friends — Lisa, a divorced mom; Joni, a chef with a boss from hell; and a birdlike younger woman, Renie — and soon the foursome is on a road trip designed to reconnect them with parts of their lives they thought they had lost. In Cece's case — or so she hopes — this means a reunion with a handsome photographer named Dennis Halsinger, "the one who got away" — all the way to Tahiti.
Printers Row Journal caught up by phone with Berg, who recently began dividing her time between Chicago and San Francisco, where her living situation resembles that of "Tapestry of Fortunes." Here's an edited transcript.
Q: I'd hoped to interview you in person, but you're wintering in San Francisco, I gather.
A: Well, come on over. The weather's great!
Q: Don't tempt me.
A: (Laughs.) I wanted to try and spend a winter in California to see how it went. I have two lifelong friends out here, so I'm staying with them.
Q: Is it similar to the situation in "Tapestry of Fortunes"?
A: You know, it feels like my books come true. I write these things, and then they kind of end up happening. I wasn't divorced, for example, when I wrote a book about divorce. (She got divorced in the mid-1990s.) And I wasn't planning to move out here when I wrote this book, but here I am.
They say about George Sand — who I'm writing a novel about now — that she wrote things in her books that she wanted to try out. In my case it's certainly not conscious, but a lot of things end up coming true. I think I need to write a novel about winning the lottery. (Laughs.)
Q: It must be very different from living alone.
A: Yes, one of my friends has this huge house, and behind her house, she has a kind of a studio or guesthouse, and that's where I'm living. It's small, and I like living small. I can be stirring soup and look over at my desk and see if I have an email. Everything's very close, and it's a lot easier to take care of. I just don't need that much anymore. So the situation is really a lot like the one in the book. I'm running down there and having dinner with my friends, or they're having dinner with me, and I'm spending a lot more time with people than I ever did before.
Q: What was the genesis of "Tapestry of Fortunes"?
A: Being an old person now, I think I was looking at a lot of things that confront people in their 60s. Do you get another act, or is this it? Could there be another career? Do you get to live in a different way? What are the things that make people brave enough to make a big change in their lives? Often it's trauma of some sort that makes people start taking life seriously. You know, "It's not going to go on forever, so if I'm going to do something, I'd better do it now."
I think a lot of people my age are feeling that way. They don't look upon retirement as really retirement; they look upon it as Act III, time to do another thing, maybe something they always wanted to do. A friend of mine moved to San Francisco years ago to become a musician, but then he looked around at all the talent here and said, "Well, I think I'll be a lawyer." Recently he retired from being a lawyer all these years and now he's going into music.
I also find that people are talking about wanting to live out their golden years, as they say — which aren't so golden at all — with their friends, so they're joining forces and living in little communities together with each other. For me, I'm finding that living alone, but with the near-presence of other people, is my ideal. When I lived alone in Chicago, I had a lot of loneliness issues. When you're a writer, as you probably know, there's a lot of alone time. Living here, I'm realizing that you have to make sure there are people in your life — and not the imaginary characters in your books, but real people.
Q: So will you stay in San Francisco, or move back to Chicago, or spend time in both places?
A: I think Chicago is the best city in the country, hands down, but I don't like the winter there anymore. So I'll either go back and forth, or I'll relocate out here, and stay with my friends.
Q: The comparison you're going to hear, especially in terms of the book, is "The Golden Girls."
A: Well, yeah, but there's some golden boys hanging around, too. My friends are married, so it's not a houseful of women, the way it is in the book. Of course Cecilia, the narrator in "Tapestry of Fortunes," has an old boyfriend she keeps trying to find. I myself still haven't seen any old boyfriends, I'd like to point out.
Q: He'll show up, I'm sure.
A: It's just a matter of time.
Q: There's always the man that got away, yes? Like the old Judy Garland song.
A: (Singing.) "The winds grow colder / and suddenly you're older …"
Q: She rips into it, doesn't she?
A: You have to replay the song over and over, even though you're weeping.
Q: Everybody seems to have an old flame, and they wonder what happened to him or her. In that sense, "Tapestry of Fortunes" is a kind of wish fulfillment.
A: Sure, I'm always reading stories about people who had sweethearts in high school or something, and then they meet again years later. The guy in the book, the Dennis character, is modeled after a guy I knew. He was an artist, and he did move to Tahiti.
Q: Doing the Paul Gauguin thing, it sounds like.
A: Yes. He was kind of an adventurer, lived in houseboats in Seattle for a while, then moved to Tahiti and married a Tahitian woman. He's dead, though, so unless I have a very spiritual connection, I'm not going to be seeing that guy again. (Laughs.)
Everybody complains about getting older, but I find it such a rich time of life. There are negative things about it, I suppose, but more than that, I'm finding it to be a very positive experience, in which growth suggests itself in a much more alluring way than it did when I was young — isn't that funny? I feel like my life is opening up, in a way. One of my friends just retired six months ago, and she was just beside herself. She didn't know what she was going to do, and how was she going to grapple with the loss of status and the structure of having to go to work every day. But she's begun writing, and she couldn't be happier.
Of course there's a certainly poignancy about this time of life — you know you're heading toward the great inevitable. But that lends a certain richness, and it makes you think about what you want to do while you still have time to do it.
Q: It's like why autumn is a lot of people's favorite season. You have a sense of things dwindling down toward winter, but there's something mellow in that — the end being in sight makes everything more, I don't know, precious.
A: Yes, and there's an honesty in it. There's a sincerity in a lot of new people I meet now who are my age. There isn't the sometimes desperate need to show off or get ahead. We're not in that place anymore.
Q: Do you think of your books as being part of any particular genre?
A: I don't like the whole idea of genre. I know it's inevitable because people want to classify things. You know, I just had a visit from Nancy Horan, who wrote "Loving Frank" (a best-selling novel about Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the lover of Frank Lloyd Wright). Some people have said she started a new genre about "the woman behind the man." When I was first writing, people said I was starting a genre about female friendship. Of course there's the unfortunate term "chick lit," which I really hate, because I think it's derogatory and belittling, and suggests things that are not flattering. I think a lot of authors get put into that category, and I'm one of those.
But I think you have to write a lot of books before you know what it is you're writing about, and as I look back, I consistently write about relationships, love, loss, resiliency — about life, really. It's beautiful, life, but it's really hard, too, and I want there to be both sides in every book I write. I want there to be humor and I want there to be pathos. In this particular book, though, there's some poignancy in it, but it's not as serious as some things I've written. This is kind of my women-just-want-to-have-fun book. After all, who doesn't want to have a little fun?
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"Tapestry of Fortunes"
By Elizabeth Berg, Random House, 240 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, RedEye