A Delicate Exploration of Loss and Renewal

Hannah McKinnon
June 10 2016

When I first picked up a copy of THE YEAR OF PLEASURES Elizabeth Berg, the irony of the title was not lost on me. After all, Berg illuminates the profound grief of Betta Nolan, a fifty-year-old Bostonian who has just lost her husband to terminal cancer.

But the same rawness of Betta’s emotions, which often leave her lying awake in the lonely predawn hours, also allows her to experience deep satisfaction in the beauty of everyday life. Betta has made a promise to her husband that she must keep: she will move forward with the life plans they made together before his death, even though that means moving on without him.

Betta’s personal reinvention begins with a road trip to the Midwest, where she moves into a rambling Victorian house. Widowhood has stripped her of a marriage that, until then, acted as an island unto itself. In her new home, she rediscovers the joys of friendship, gathering those she treasures around rustic home-cooked meals.

Betta muses, “Now, on this road trip, my mind seemed to uncrinkle, to breathe, to present to itself a cure for a disease it had not, until now, known it had. I saw farmhouses in the middle of protective stands of trees, silos reaching for the sky, barns faded to the soft red of tomato soup. That was the tolerable part of my new vulnerability, the positive side of feeling my heart had migrated out of my body to hang on my chest like a necklace.”

While the plot unfurls at a gentle pace, great joy can be found in Berg’s lush rendering of everyday details. Simple pleasures are extolled virtuously, like the weight of warm water against skin as you sink into a claw-foot tub, or the delight of a perfectly roasted chicken on a crisp autumn night. Such are the joys that Betta Nolan savors.

There is subtle beauty in Berg’s portrayal of Betta Nolan’s personal loss and renewal. This is a delicate exploration of grief for a love lost, whether to death, to divorce, to illness, or to time. Berg suggests that perhaps happiness really does lie in the seemingly ordinary details of everyday life.

At fifty years old, Betta’s need to recreate a life that is whole and meaningful is visceral and at times paralyzing. But Berg’s themes of forgiveness, moving forward, and finding simple pleasure are universal: even in the happiest of marriages, we risk ceding our individual identities to the very partnership that fulfills us. Friendships lost may be rediscovered, and in the process we may find our truest selves.

The Year of Pleasures
Elizabeth Berg

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