Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer, Sand and The Last Time I Saw You

Reviewed by Doris

Readers will either enjoy The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg (F BER Main, Avoca) or hate it. I am kind of in the middle.  I found the pace very fast (perfect for a lazy summer afternoon read), some of the characters touching and others annoying, and it did make me stop and remember people I had not thought about in years. It is also rather predictable and a bit too smarmy and trite with the guaranteed happy ending for all.  Berg’s earlier works have a good bit more meat to them than this one, but it is not a bad summer read—especially if you have a class reunion coming soon.

The book uses a fortieth and last high school reunion to look at a few members of that class. In most ways the characters Berg weaves into the story are stereotypes from every high school class. There are the jocks led by the handsome quarterback every girl wanted. There is the most beautiful girl in the class who was “Miss” everything. There is the nerdy class valedictorian who became a veterinarian and the unattractive girl everyone treated badly. Finally there is the “wannabee” girl who desperately tried to be most popular. Forty years after the triumphs and disasters of high school they all come home, bringing with them the successes and failures they have lived as adults.

Mary Alice Mayhew was poor, unattractive and the target for the brutality some teens seem to thrive on in high school.  Quiet and unassuming, she has made a very comfortable life for herself caring for others.  In most ways she has “grown into her skin” and finds her life good. She goes to the last reunion because she has not attended any others, and she wants to see how her classmates have fared. She feels no rancor for the way she was treated so she is going with an open heart. Her date for the reunion is a ninety-two year old Einer Olson who offers Mary Alice and her classmates some great advice and a couple of belly laughs. My favorite part of the story is that Mary Alice gets her heart’s desire much to everyone’s surprise.

Dorothy Shauman has recently undergone a bitter divorce and is at odds with her daughter. She wanted to be with Pete Decker in high school. Now, the reunion is her chance to get one night with the golden boy. She plots and plans for months only to have her expectations crushed.  Forced to confront who she was, she finally sees who she wants to be by the end of the night.

Remember the golden boy that had all the girls in love with him and everything just his way? Pete Decker is that golden boy, but life lately has thrown him for a major loop. After years of playing around on his wife Nora, she leaves him. His children won’t answer his calls. His body fails him, and he is desperate to turn things around. Believing the reunion is the way to get Nora to open her heart to him again, Pete risks everything. What happens to the golden boy finally brings out the real man.

Lester Hessenpfeffer was class valedictorian and the resident nerd. He becomes a successful veterinarian and at age twenty-nine tragically loses his wife and baby when a drunk driver hits them. Life since then has been devoted to his patients and friends, but in his heart he carries just a little fantasy about the high school girl who seemed unreachable. His office staff tells him they will resign en masse if he does not go to the reunion so Les goes. Keeping one eye out for the girl he hopes will show up, he almost overlooks the girl who will give him back his heart.

     If Pete Decker was the class golden boy, Candy Sullivan Armstrong was the class beauty, homecoming queen, most popular, and nicest person. Candy has lived her life since high school being the perfect wife to a controlling man. Days before the reunion Candy receives news that devastates her and forces her to look back to a safer time. She goes to the reunion to see old friends, but she finds new friends instead.  The new friends give her a perspective on her future that helps her face life or death.

     Five very different people except each one is looking for a human connection they need. By looking back, they find their way forward. Berg does not flinch when she is called a “woman’s writer” because her characters tend to be full of feelings, needs, and wants. In The Last Time I Saw You she creates a story about feelings and how we all at some point may lose sight of who we are meant to be. As I said the ending is rather predictable, but it is satisfying in most ways too. This is not a great novel, but it will go down well with a tall, cool glass of lemonade and your high school yearbook.

     One piece of advice about reunions: everyone should go to at least one of their class reunions. Go with an open mind and talk to classmates you did not get to know in high school. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised.    

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