People have always told me their secrets; they open up their closets and let their skeletons tumble out, trusting me as keeper of their most excruciating moments. In a world dominated by social-media feeds attempting to convince us that everyone else is the lucky recipient of an unblemished existence, it’s an honor to bear witness to a person’s dark underbelly. My closest friends are those willing to have true, intimate conversations that connect us in ways nothing else can—and as a result, we are stitched into the messy fabric of each other’s lives.
I am drawn to people who are courageous enough to share their pain. But I am even more enthralled by an author who dares to explore the devastating experiences so many of us go through—an author who manages to make an entire book feel like one of those intimate conversations rather than a series of words set on the page.
Elizabeth Berg is that kind of author. I randomly picked her novel, TALK BEFORE SLEEP, off the library shelf two decades ago and it has stayed with me ever since. At its core, this is a story about Ruth, a woman who is diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer, and how her very diverse group of friends, especially her best friend, Ann, rally around her to help. But it quickly becomes clear that this is not going to be some rote, surface exploration of female relationships.
We learn of Ruth’s diagnosis when Ann walks into the bathroom to find her friend in the tub: “I can see the outline of her body in the water. She is half swimming, turning slightly side to side, hips rising languidly up and down. Her breasts are gone.” This arresting image of the last line hooked me into the story and refused to let me go.
Berg continues to draw her reader in, providing exquisite examples of how women speak to each other, the truths that escape us when the stakes are high, and the laughter that often overtakes us when the sorrow becomes too much. She doesn’t mask her character’s flaws; instead, she lays them out, unflinching, and you can’t look away.
From the moment she introduces you to Ann and Ruth, you have a sense of inhabiting the same room as her characters, the proverbial fly on the wall, and not a moment of dialogue or interaction rings untrue. I constantly found myself thinking, This is how women really are with each other. This is what it means to be a friend.
Sometimes when you finish a book, you have to catch your breath. You take the book and hold it to your chest, your heart holding on to its last words, wishing this particular conversation wasn’t over. But that’s the beauty of a book like TALK BEFORE SLEEP—it’s the kind of conversation you can have over and over again, with yourself, and with others, when you rush to tell them about the next book they have to read. Its characters become woven into your own story; their secrets become yours, and in the end—as all good stories should—it makes you feel that we’re all connected.