Filed under: book reviews, short stories | Tags: aging, body image, day i ate whatever i wanted, elizabeth berg, family, fiction, food, middle-aged women, mother's day gifts, quotes, short stories, weight watchers
On a rainy afternoon I decided to indulge and read an entire short story collection rather than sampling only one story. I settled in with The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation the latest collection from Elizabeth Berg. This was my first time reading anything by Berg and I found the collection humorous, thoughtful, and nice.
The thirteen stories scrutinize mostly middle-aged-women’s relationships with food, body image, aging and family. Berg writes the stories warmly and with feeling that often extend a soft, though none too subtle, punch. In the title story a woman breaks from the bonds of Weight Watchers and point counting to indulge in a day long gorging spree but realizes after this that she feels no better, and in fact is left “hollow eyed,” about herself. Juxtaposing this story is “The Day I Ate Nothing I Even Remotely Wanted,” which despite the control the narrator has over her eating leaves her no more happy. And in “Double Diet” a married couple diet together and the husband points out his wife’s issue of rewarding herself with food.
Berg is not delving into radical territory here but she is also not afraid to address the hostile yet dependent relationship many western women seem to have with food. In “Full Count” a child Janey is called “lard ass” by her cousin and Berg concludes the story with the suggestion of Janey’s weight related problems to come in life. Accompanying these more problematic food stories are tales such as “How to Make an Apple Pie,” which is a letter passing along a recipe and a good deal of life’s anecdotes and also the tale “Truth or Dare” where food allows for a communal relationship between three women.
Aging is also of great interest in this collection and Berg allows her characters to have their existential crisis but with a gentle hand they always find a solution. In “Mrs. Ethel Menafee and Mrs. Birdie Stoltz,” Birdie is dying of leukemia and distant from her friend of more than fifty years Ethel. Berg allows Birdie the space to begin understanding what the end entails, but the story concludes as the two older women honestly speak to each other through humor and dolls. “Rain,” the most melancholy story in the collection, is of a woman reflecting on her life as her male friend gives up everything for a life self-sustenance and later finds he has a brain tumor.
All of the stories deal with relationships but stories such as “Returns and Exchanges” and “The Party” explores more particular dynamics of relationships. In “Returns and Exchanges” and attempt to rekindle a past love leaves a wife more in love with her husband and “The Party” seeks to define the assertion and power some men have over some women. “Over the Hill and Into the Woods” allows a woman to redefine her self away from her children and “Sin City” sees a widow rediscovering life after a weekend’s splurge in Las Vegas.
At work this collection is currently being marketed as a great Mother’s Day gift, and this perhaps more aptly describes the collection than I have to this point. Berg is not an edgy writer but she is a comfortable author exploring important and day-in-the-life-of themes that effect women in particular. The stories are often fun and light but Berg delivers important questions that encourages the reader to consider are you living the life you want to live and how you want to live it?
Other opinions: Short Story Reading Challenge.