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December 05, 2022

Review in Haiku: Dream When You're Feeling Blue

By Katrina Stonoff

Three '40s sisters
write letters to soldiers and
pray their men return.

Before I tell you not to waste your money on Dream When You're Feeling Blue, let me assure you I'm a big Elizabeth Berg fan. I buy and read everything she writes, and I've only been disappointed once before, though she's published 16 books in so many years.

Having said that ... don't waste your money. If, like me, you're a big fan and absolutely have to read everything she writes, get it from the library.

Feeling Blue started well and has a great premise: three sisters in the 1940s write letters to men who are gone off to World War II. One sister is engaged to her soldier; one wants to be engaged, and the youngest writes to a number of casual acquaintances she meets at USO dances.

Elements of Feeling Blue were exquisite. In one letter, for instance, a soldier described D-Day as it really was, and the details had breath-stealing power. For instance, tanks were dropped via parachute, but the devices that were supposed to hold them afloat failed, and they sank, drowning their crews inside.

But. *sigh* First, Berg included far too much idiomatic language: pink squirrel, Green Hornet, make-do cake, Roosevelt coffee, cherub bob, spiritual bouquet, climb up your thumb, puss like mine, try to put the bite on, flashy car with a bear trap, togged to the bricks, Velva, too ginned up (not meaning drunk), droolies, Able-Grable, dead hoofer, off the rattler, like bing, wearing iron, zotzed, etc. etc. etc. Most of the time, I could figure out the meaning in context, but not always.

I understand that an author needs to include period language to create a mood, to evoke a by-gone time. But there was so much slang, that I was too aware of the author, as if she was saying, "See how much research I did?!" And anytime I'm aware of the author, it's a story that doesn't work for me.

I don't read stories. I live them (this is the primary reason I rarely read horror). But when the author gets in the way, then I'm still me, sitting in my safe life, just reading about something that never happened. And that's not magic.

Even worse though, Feeling Blue's ending was obvious from about the second chapter. In fact, halfway through the book, when I complained to my husband about how obvious one outcome was, my teenage son walked through the room and added a specific detail he thought would also be included (sorry, I can't be more clear without spoilers). And by golly, when I finally got there, sure enough: it happened exactly the way even my teenager knew it would, because that's how this kind of story always ends.

For me, that's a deal-breaker. I don't want to know the ending until I get there, and I sure don't want the ending I've already seen dozens of times.

There was another element of the ending that I didn't guess -- but only because it was impossibly out of character. It didn't push my "Oh, puhleeze" button (which is bad enough); it pushed my "Oh, brother!" button.

Then there's the fact that after the emotional climax, you turn the page to find 18 months or so have passed (that's when the "Oh, brother!" moment occurs). You get about one full page of info, turn another page and ... voila! ... it's 60 years later.

Finally, to nail down damnation on the book, Berg must have thought she had to tell the reader what had passed in the intervening six decades because she concocted a young, male cab driver who is just fascinated by the life of his 85-year-old female rider. He plies her with eager questions throughout the ride: "What was school like then? What had she done for a living? Had she lived here all her life?"

When's the last time you hailed a cab in Chicago, and found the 20-something driver fascinated by your life? That's the point where I literally threw the book across the kitchen table in disgust.

Elizabeth Berg is a gifted writer, and I highly recommend you read her books. But read Talk Before Sleep, or Never Change, or Open House, or Range of Motion.

Give Dream When You're Feeling Blue a pass.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-12-15
3 Reader Comments
Cristy Westman
07/23/2012
09:44:51 AM
I was going to literally re-read the book and make notes in the margins to write an accurate review of the outlandish book that we are discussing. But alas, a quick search on google for a review has led me to you. And you, dear friend, are apparently my twin in thought and humor. Amazing review. Thank you for being so pissed that you took the time to write your thoughts and get them out there. Now, in my spare time, I can nurse my wounded soul and read a book that might actually mean something.

PS. Didn't you feel her use of Wikipedia facts and cliche glimpses of the 40's felt like you were hearing someone badly describe history? 'Cause all I could think of was my grandfather spinning in his urn. This book does not capture the true spirit of WWII, only a woman's desire to pay tribute to her father's generation (as she states on her personal website, albeit while simultaneously falsely describing the cover of the book she spent so little time writing). Please email be back if you happen to read this comment. I'd love your further input.
Katrina Stonoff
07/24/2012
04:48:43 PM
Hi, Cristy! Thanks for the comment.

Have you read other books by Elizabeth Berg? She's a very gifted author, so I hope you'll give her another chance. But I definitely agree -- this one was written too fast, and written (I suspect) from a POV of "What can I write next that people will like?" rather than "What story burns to be told next?"
Violettahoneysuckle
07/21/2013
03:01:54 AM
Love Berg's writing and had put Dream When You're Feeling Blue aside to read Durable Goods. Thought I'd google reviews to see if anyone could convince me to finish Dream.... Just found it predictable and boring and a bit Little Women for my taste. Thank you for saving me having to finish it- life's too short, etc. Waiting for Until the Real Thing Comes Along, Range of Motion and True to Form to be delivered ... when Berg gets it right, she is one of the best at getting inside a woman' head but no, she doesn't always get it right!
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