Synopses & Reviews
In this new novel, beloved bestselling author Elizabeth Berg weaves a beautifully written and richly resonant story of a mother and daughter in emotional transit. Helen Ames-recently widowed, coping with loss and grief, unable to do the work that has always sustained her-is beginning to depend far too much on her twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Tessa, and is meddling in her life, offering unsolicited and unwelcome advice. Helens problems are compounded by her shocking discovery that her mild-mannered and loyal husband was apparently leading a double life. The Ameses had painstakingly saved for a happy retirement, but that money disappeared in several large withdrawals made by Helens husband before he died. In order to support herself and garner a measure of much needed independence, Helen takes an unusual job that ends up offering far more than she had anticipated. And then a phone call from a stranger sets Helen on a surprising path of discovery that causes both mother and daughter to reassess what they thought they knew about each other, themselves, and what really makes a home and a family.
"Love, work and the absence of both figure prominently in Berg's latest, a rumination on loss and replenishment. Since novelist Helen's husband, Dan, died a year ago, she's been unable to write, and though her publisher and agent aren't worried, she is, particularly after a disastrous performance at a public speaking engagement leaves her wondering if her writing career will be another permanent loss. Meanwhile, daughter Tessa is getting impatient as Helen smothers her with awkward motherly affection. Tessa longs for distance and some independence, but Helen is unable to run her suburban Chicago home without continually calling on Tessa to perform the handyman chores that once belonged to Dan. And then Helen discovers Dan had withdrawn a huge chunk of their retirement money, and Helen's quest to find out what happened turns into a journey of self-discovery and hard-won healing. Berg gracefully renders, in tragic and comic detail, the notions that every life however blessed has its share of awful loss, and that even crushed, defeated hearts can be revived." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
The bestselling author of The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and The Year of Pleasures returns with a wonderful novel about a woman, a daughter, and a surprising change in life
Beloved author Elizabeth Berg tells the story of the recently widowed Helen Ames and of her twenty-seven-year-old daughter Tessa. Helen is shocked to discover that her mild-mannered and loyal husband had been leading a double life. The Ames's had saved money for a happy retirement, planned in minute detail, but that money has disappeared in several big withdrawals--spent by Helen's husband before he died. What could he possibly have been doing? And what is Helen to do now? Why does Helen's daughter object to her mother's applying for a job--and why doesn't Tessa meet a nice man and get married?
What Helen's husband did with all their money turns out to be provocative, revelatory--and leads Helen and her daughter to embark on new adventures, and change.
About the Author
Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels as well as two works of nonfiction. Open House was an Oprahs Book Club selection, Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year, and Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for an Abby Award. Her bestsellers also include The Year of Pleasures, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, and Dream When Youre Feeling Blue. Berg has been honored by both the Boston Public Library and the Chicago Public Library and is a popular speaker at various venues around the country. She lives near Chicago.
Reading Group Guide
1. In the opening pages of Home Safe
, we see Helen as a young girl, writing poetry to deal with the grief of losing a classmate: “With this, she was given peace” (page 4). What types of activities calm or fulfill you? How do they resonate emotionally?
2. Helen says that her favorite Christmas gift is the custom-mixed CD her daughter makes for her each year. Do you have a tradition of making homemade gifts? What have been some of your favorite or most memorable holiday gifts? What gift would you be thrilled to get from your child? From your parent?
3. As a diversion, Helen prepares an elaborate meal of “roast pork with cinnamon apple chutney, mashed sweet potatoes, green beans with crispy shallots,” and an apple crisp (page 26). If you were making such a meal just for yourself, what foods would you choose? What roles does food play in our lives? What types of situations and occasions do you associate with special meals? Discuss other creative pursuits that you might have or indeed have tried in a similar situation.
4. One writing exercise Helen uses as a teaching tool is for her students to write short stories using a number of given objects: “an old silver hairbrush, a blackened frying pan, a love letter from the 1930s, a pair of mens shoes, a floppy-necked teddy bear, one dusty wing of a butterfly” (page 47). What sort of story might you construct about these objects? Who do these things belong to? If you had created this exercise, what objects might you have chosen?
5. Helen relates, on page 89, that Dan used a childrens book to illustrate his dream of sailing. Are there any particular childrens books that resonate with you as an adult? That influence you? Why?
6. The titles title, Home Safe, appears in an expression Helen recalls on page 86. How did Helen and Dan use this phrase? What people or places in your life give you this feeling?
7. Helen wonders what she and Dan might have discussed in the tree house, recalling that a friend had wisely said,“Its not the things you have in a tree house, its the things you think about there” (page 129). If you could have a special retreat of your own, what and where would it be, and why? What sorts of things would you discuss there, and with whom
8. When Helen considers moving to San Francisco, knowing that Tessa has accepted a job there, she wonders if Tessa will be upset about it, and asks herself if she “is allowed to make a decision that is for and about herself?” (page182). This question of whether an action is for Tessa or for Helen recurs throughout the novel. From where does this question stem? How does this issue affect their relationship? How would you advise each party? Do you know a mother-daughter pair, or a female pair with a different bond, who disagrees on such issues?
9. Helen thinks that “if you leave one home, you can find another” (page 202). Who or what makes a home? What qualities do you associate with home? Have you found Helens thought to be true in your own life?
10. The details and features of Helens dream house are carefully and delightfully described. What might your dream house look like? What features would it include? Where would it be located?
11. What parts of Helens journey are universal? What parts can you relate to your own life? What themes does Elizabeth Berg draw out of the characters?
12. The lush and detailed images in this novel are unique. Can you point out a few effective images that really conveyed the novels themes to you? What images did you most relate and respond to?
Elizabeth Berg on mothers and daughters
It’s a hot summer morning, and I’m nine years old. I awaken late and follow my usual morning routine: climb out of bed, untwist my pajamas, check out the sky, and then greet my little turtle, who lives in a plastic moat with a plastic palm tree and a ramp, which, to my way of thinking, is a turtle five- star hotel. I feed him some dried flies, and then go down to the kitchen for some dried flies of my own. So to speak.
My mother is not in the kitchen waiting for me. She is not in the basement doing laundry. She is not in the living room dusting or vacuuming, or in the bathroom scrubbing the tub. She is, in short, nowhere she is supposed to be. I look outside to see if she’s hanging wash on the line. Nope. Where she is is down the block a ways, sitting on the steps with some other women, having coffee with them.
I really want a fried egg, and I’m miffed that my mother is not there to make me one immediately. But I’ve watched her do it often enough, and I decide I can make one for myself. And so, not without trepidation, I take out the pan and the butter and the spatula and the egg. The final product is not exactly something I’d enter in a fried egg contest, but I have indeed made one, and now I do what I must do. I march down the block and interrupt my mother and her friends to hold out my plate and show my mom what I have done. “Very nice,” my mother says, and there, now I can eat it.
Cut to the teenage years, and now I am full of disdain for the woman whose love and approval I formerly sought above all others’. Everything she says is suspect. She is too nice to people. She has no idea how to dress–herself or me. She drives too slow. Basically, everything she does is wrong, even if she’s just standing there breathing.
Again, I am doing what I must do, only this time it is to walk not toward my mother but as far away from her as I can get. I have to cut my ties to her in order to have a life of my own. So I subjugate the love I hold for her in my heart, and make a mantra out of I can’t wait to get out of here. I don’t mean just physically. I mean psychically. In time, I do remove myself both ways; it is natural and fitting. Then, years later, I come to a refined love and new appreciation for my mother; this too is natural and fitting. Everybody knows this happens. Everybody knows the motherdaughter relationship is one of the most complex there is. So why was it so difficult, so shocking, when my own daughters went through the same process I did? Well, because although it’s hard to be the one in either position–the person who has to leave, or the person who is left–I think it was hard for me because I subscribed to what every mother believes: that she would do everything differently–better–than her own mother did. It is true that all mothers do things differently from their own mothers, but they don’t necessarily do them better. It is also true that no matter what kind of mother we are, the day will come when something we say or do will be met with rolled eyes and a huge sigh, if not an epithet and a slammed door.
When I wrote Home Safe, I wanted to look at a number of things. The mystery and joy and pain of creativity. What happens when a vital safety net is suddenly removed. The difficulty some people have in growing up. The way a deep love can be as crippling as it is satisfying. But mostly, I wanted to look at the motherdaughter relationship. I wanted to “be” my daughter when she is looking at me and shaking her head and saying, rapid- fire, “Mom. Mom. Mom.” What is inside all that kind of exasperation? One of my daughters now has children of her own, one of them a son. The other is (Jaws theme here, please) a daughter. “I know what’s coming,” my daughter said recently, ruefully. What I know is that I’ll be there to comfort them both.