Say When

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Say When focuses on subject matter that has been scrutinized backwards and forwards probably for as long as the institution of marriage has existed. None of the pain and confusion, self-doubt and blame sounds particularly original. The wife has an affair with a much younger man, and the husband realizes that he has been taking his wife for granted. Yet, Ellen and Griffin and their eight-year-old daughter Zoe somehow manage to get under your skin.

Ellen and Griffin have been married for ten years when Ellen starts to become more distant. Though her customary reserve has always been a part of her attraction for Griffin, eventually he cannot miss the perfume as she leaves for night class and the phone calls that end abruptly when he comes into the room. Still, Griffin waits to see what will happen. He is a man who doesn’t appreciate change for its own sake, one who feels that comfort is more appealing than romance. But this routine is shattered when Ellen informs Griffin that she has fallen in love with her auto mechanics teacher and wants a divorce. Because neither Ellen nor Griffin is willing to move out, they decide—at least initially—to stay in the house as roommates. But it is not a comfortable arrangement.

Much of what readers might expect occurs in this attempt to save a marriage. In a fit of pique, Griffin hurls his wedding ring into a snow-covered field. Ellen keeps popping up, demanding that they talk. And they both worry about Zoe. But there are also delightfully unexpected touches, most of which revolve around Griffin’s night job as a mall Santa. What’s also unusual is that Say When is presented from the male viewpoint. Elizabeth Berg’s previous best-selling works have been written from the female perspective, and her insights have won well-deserved acclaim.

Say When offers Berg’s customary clear prose, and—as the saying goes—all’s well that ends well. When Ellen returns home to stay in time for Christmas, readers are likely to be glad. Though this novel may not shed new light on human relationships, it certainly offers an opportunity to recognize, and ruminate on, what is already known. Each time that is done, what is known is likely to get a little deeper.