Review – What We Keep

What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg


From Publisher’s Weekly –

“I don’t like my mother. She’s not a good person.” So declares Ginny Young on a trip to California to visit her mother, Marion, whom she hasn’t seen in 35 years. Ginny is only making the trip as a favor to her sister, Sharla, who has called to say she’s awaiting the results of a cancer test. In flashback, Berg (Talk Before Sleep) revisits the events of the girls’ childhood and the moments when their mother’s problems began to reveal themselves. One night, Ginny and Sharla overhear their mother screaming at their father about her unhappiness and telling him that she never wanted children. Then she walks out with no explanations, returning briefly a few months later to explain that she’s not coming back. The following years bring occasional visits that are impossibly painful for all concerned and so full of buried anger that the girls decide to curtail them altogether. When Sharla meets Ginny (now a mother herself) at the airport, and the two see their mother again, there are surprises in store, but not especially shocking ones. The reader, in fact, may feel there is less here than meets the eye: Marion’s flight is never made psychologically credible. Berg’s customary skill in rendering domestic details is intact, but the story seems stitched together. Crucial scenes feel highlighted rather than fleshed out, and Ginny’s bitterness disappears into thin air as she reaches a facile, sentimental conclusion about her mother’s needs.

My thoughts –

Well I am not quite sure what to say about this book.  The first third is a build up to what really happened to Ginny and Sharla’s mother; Ginny makes plenty of references to the fact that her mother is a horrible person, but why she is so horrible is not explained until about a third of the way through.  When that finally surfaces (the fact that she walked out on Ginny, Sharla, and their father without a reasonable explanation for a few days when they were children, and subsequently was no longer allowed in the girls’ lives by their own choice for the next 35 years), it is not shocking in any way, nor is it the least bit understandable why the girls couldn’t accept the fact that their mother was a human being with needs just like them.  I mean, I realize this was probably the 1950’s, but seriously, they were like twelve years old and they couldn’t have SOME compassion for their mom’s needing just a little break from housewifery?  It honestly just annoyed me that they shunned their mother for the rest of their lives because of this one small “mistake” she made. 

When the girls (now adult women now, in their forties) finally reunite with their mother, it is somewhat anticlimactic.  I won’t give anything away, because there are a few small (but predictable) surprises here, but the way the three of them interact after so many years apart is hard for me to accept.  The whole book just didn’t seem all that believable to me, even though I was sucked into the story and was very interested in finding out what REALLY happened to make their mother leave so suddenly, and what would happen when they finally saw each other again.

6 stars.

3 thoughts on “Review – What We Keep”

  1. Hmmm, I don’t know about 12 year olds being able to sympathize with their mother abandoning them to gain a little time for herself…most kids are pretty egocentric. I’m also not so sure I’d *expect* them to be understanding – I would be hesitant to excuse this behavior in any mother. But, I’d have to read this for myself I guess to see how Berg develops the characters. Thanks for your review of this book – I’m a Berg fan and have liked most of her books, although every now and then she writes one that I can’t connect with. Perhaps this will be one of those.

  2. This is a good review, Heather! I think I’ll skip the book, just because I agree with you on the girls’ bitchiness about their mother’s abandonment. Get over it already! You’re right; people make mistakes and they shouldn’t be punished forever. Also, if this was the 1950’s, nobody knew much of anything about mental illness or how to deal with it. Maybe their mother HAD to leave.

  3. I just came across your blog today. You do a wonderful job of describing what you’ve read. Keep up the good work…remembering that every life touches every other life. You never know who it may be that you’ll touch in a way that could facilite some change for the positive!

    Kindest Regards,


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