New York: Random House, 1994. ISBN 0385318782.
Reviewed by Leslie Crowley
Posted on 01/19/2001
Elizabeth Berg's 1994 novel Talk Before Sleep is a powerful and deeply moving story about a woman who loses her closest friend to breast cancer. Berg writes that her purpose in writing the novel was twofold: "I wanted to demonstrate the strength and salvation of women's friendships; and I wanted to personalize the devastating effects of losing someone to this disease." Talk Before Sleep does both of these; the reader finishes the novel feeling both the power and the unbearable fragility of our most important relationships.
Talk Before Sleep is the story of Ann and Ruth, two women in their early forties who have been friends for about seven years. Ann is a nurse with a husband and young daughter, and Ruth is an artist with an older son, an ex-husband, and several lovers. We know from the start of the novel that Ruth is dying of cancer, and this contributes to the sense of both urgency and patience that the novel cultivates. In the opening chapter, Ann, the narrator, describes Ruth's bedroom: "There is a stack of magazines piled high on the floor and a collection of crystals on the bedside table: rose quartz, amethyst, and a clear white one with a delicate fractured pattern running through it. They are not working. She is dying, though we don't know when. We are waiting. She is only forty-three and I am only forty-two and all this will not stop being surprising" (6-7).
Ann's narration moves back and forth between the past, describing the growing friendship between the two women who are able to speak openly and directly to one another in that way only real friends can-"She hears my unspoken sentences" (61)-and the present, where they are figuring out what it means that one of them is dying. Throughout the novel, Ann learns about her life through her relationship with Ruth, how her own need for family and home is greater than the freedom and solitude she often envies in Ruth's life. Through her funny, loving descriptions of their conversations and experiences, both before and after the diagnosis, we come to care about Ann and Ruth as individual characters as well as about the bond between them. In a real and immediate way, we know what this book is about because, if we are lucky, we have a friendship like this one.
One of the most painful realizations I experienced during this novel is the way Ruth's dying demands both an intense closeness and an inevitable emotional separation between the two women. We feel this in an early exchange between them: "'Oh, I wish I could take a day for you. I wish we could trade for just one day.' She steps back from me, smiles bitterly. 'No, you don't.' 'Yes, I do! I do!' 'It might be the day I check out.' 'I'd take the chance.' 'The hell you would.' Nothing. Nothing except for the gigantic fact that she is right" (34). And we feel it later when Ann learns that Ruth has died, and she picks up the phone to call her-to tell her that she has died.
For me, the most powerful aspect of this novel is that it is very much a story-it tells us what happened and what everyone said about it. By spending her time more on dialogues and interactions and less on setting, internal monologues or varying perspectives, Berg lets the "talk" between these two women tell their story. Though Ann and Ruth's thoughts and feelings are not always overtly described, they come through with unmistakable power and clarity, because they are so familiar to anyone who regards the relationships between women as precious. Towards the end of the novel, as Ruth is closer to dying, Ann says,
Our conversations are silly-about nothing, really, less and less consequential. But they are comforting to both of us, I know. They remind me of what we talk about before we go to sleep, any of us, the lazy, low-voiced assurances we offer each other: Did you turn out the lights? Put the chain locks on? Is the cat in? Are the kids covered? Always, we're just checking to see that we're safe. I've always thought that was the funniest thing, given the vastness of the dark we lie down in (199).
Talk Before Sleep is about both safety and vastness. As a reader, I felt that this novel elevated all of my relationships to something sacred, but also reminded me with a profane clarity just how tenuous and fragile these relationships are. Being reminded through this novel that death comes this close scared me; it also made me feel more deeply into those relationships that are part of my everyday life, the ones that matter enough that you know without question that you will go all the way to end with them-those of "the eternal variety" (6).
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