Range Of Motion

Until the Real Thing Comes Along
by Elizabeth Berg
(Random House, $23, G) ISBN 0-679-45722-4
I always thought I could depend on Elizabeth Berg to deliver a powerful, poignant and above all else, intimate novel. When she's on target, the author has the unique ability to discover small but important universal truths about women and our relationships. Unfortunately, Until the Real Thing Comes Along is not the author at her best. In fact, at times I wasn't even sure if this novel was an Elizabeth Berg product at all. Occasionally it seemed as if the spirit of Helen Fielding (author of Bridget Jones' Diary) had possessed her. The end result was a substandard effort from a gifted author.

Patty Ann Murphy is desperate to have a child. As a child, she always played with dolls and fantasized about being a mother. Unfortunately, she's reached her mid-thirties without marrying because she has always wanted the one man she can't have. In the sixth grade, she fell in love with Ethan Allen Gaines. Fifteen years later they tried to have a serious relationship that ended when Ethan confessed to Patty that he was gay. They are still best friends, but deep inside Patty hopes that one day Ethan will somehow change his orientation and love her fully.

Meanwhile, she keeps busy as the most unsuccessful real estate agent in history. Her parents, who live nearby in the same small Massachusetts seaside town, have the kind of marriage Patty covets. They squabble and disagree, but they look at each other with true love. Patty also is envious of the Berkenheimers, an affectionate elderly couple who have kept Patty busy for the past year looking at (but not buying) houses.

In the depth of her loneliness, Patty reaches out once more to Ethan, with surprising results. But has she found the answer to her dreams or not? If she can't have absolute marital bliss with Ethan, will she be satisfied with what he is capable of giving? Is some of Ethan better than nothing?

As I said, this was inferior Berg. First of all, I never understood or empathized with Patty. She was too desperate, too aimless, too naive in her belief that her feelings for Ethan could change him into a heterosexual dream partner. Yes, he understood her perfectly and offered compassion and good recipes, but she should have seen that their relationship was more like two girlfriends than two well-matched lovers who complement each other.

My other Elizabeth Berg novels contain many dog-eared pages, so I can go back, re-read and cherish the numerous dazzling and insightful passages. The pages of Until the Real Thing Comes Along remain surprisingly intact, however. The writing was lighter, not as intimate or memorable. It was as if Berg was trying to create another Bridget Jones instead of sticking with the type of character she knows and usually brings to life so accurately.

The book gathers some steam in its final 75 pages, as Patty confronts a family crisis. This section contains the emotional resonance I had expected. Patty's own experiences, and those of her parents and friends, have given her a greater appreciation of what people are willing to do to achieve love, and what they must learn to accept when that relationship is compromised.

But in the end, this book was a vast disappointment, lacking the author's usual magic. I haven't always agreed with Berg's messages -- sometimes she veers a bit too close to anti-feminist rhetoric for me -- but I've always admired her singular writing style. That style is compromised in this effort, however. Until the next Berg comes along, I guess I'll have to be content with Until the Real Thing Comes Along. But I know she is capable of so much more.

--Susan Scribner

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