Since her first novel, "Durable Goods" (1993), Chicago author Elizabeth Berg has carved out a place as one of America's most beloved chroniclers of female friendship. Best known for the best-selling "Open House," an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000, Berg finds humor and pathos in the lives and loves of women, in particular their setbacks and recoveries. Along the way she has built a strong, mostly female readership that has aged and grown with her, which is to say gracefully.
Her new novel, "Tapestry of Fortunes," finds Berg, now 64, in an adventurous mood. It follows her heroine, a motivational speaker named Cecilia "Cece" Ross, who's struggling to navigate late middle age after suffering the loss of her best friend.
She downsizes her household and moves in with three friends — Lisa, a divorced mom; Joni, a chef with a boss from hell; and a birdlike younger woman, Renie — and soon the foursome is on a road trip designed to reconnect them with parts of their lives they thought they had lost. In Cece's case — or so she hopes — this means a reunion with a handsome photographer named Dennis Halsinger, "the one who got away" — all the way to Tahiti.
Printers Row Journal caught up by phone with Berg, who recently began dividing her time between Chicago and San Francisco, where her living situation resembles that of "Tapestry of Fortunes." Here's an edited transcript.
Q: I'd hoped to interview you in person, but you're wintering in San Francisco, I gather.
A: Well, come on over. The weather's great!
Q: Don't tempt me.
A: (Laughs.) I wanted to try and spend a winter in California to see how it went. I have two lifelong friends out here, so I'm staying with them.
Q: Is it similar to the situation in "Tapestry of Fortunes"?
A: You know, it feels like my books come true. I write these things, and then they kind of end up happening. I wasn't divorced, for example, when I wrote a book about divorce. (She got divorced in the mid-1990s.) And I wasn't planning to move out here when I wrote this book, but here I am.
They say about George Sand — who I'm writing a novel about now — that she wrote things in her books that she wanted to try out. In my case it's certainly not conscious, but a lot of things end up coming true. I think I need to write a novel about winning the lottery. (Laughs.)
Q: It must be very different from living alone.
A: Yes, one of my friends has this huge house, and behind her house, she has a kind of a studio or guesthouse, and that's where I'm living. It's small, and I like living small. I can be stirring soup and look over at my desk and see if I have an email. Everything's very close, and it's a lot easier to take care of. I just don't need that much anymore. So the situation is really a lot like the one in the book. I'm running down there and having dinner with my friends, or they're having dinner with me, and I'm spending a lot more time with people than I ever did before.
Q: What was the genesis of "Tapestry of Fortunes"?
A: Being an old person now, I think I was looking at a lot of things that confront people in their 60s. Do you get another act, or is this it? Could there be another career? Do you get to live in a different way? What are the things that make people brave enough to make a big change in their lives? Often it's trauma of some sort that makes people start taking life seriously. You know, "It's not going to go on forever, so if I'm going to do something, I'd better do it now."
I think a lot of people my age are feeling that way. They don't look upon retirement as really retirement; they look upon it as Act III, time to do another thing, maybe something they always wanted to do. A friend of mine moved to San Francisco years ago to become a musician, but then he looked around at all the talent here and said, "Well, I think I'll be a lawyer." Recently he retired from being a lawyer all these years and now he's going into music.
I also find that people are talking about wanting to live out their golden years, as they say — which aren't so golden at all — with their friends, so they're joining forces and living in little communities together with each other. For me, I'm finding that living alone, but with the near-presence of other people, is my ideal. When I lived alone in Chicago, I had a lot of loneliness issues. When you're a writer, as you probably know, there's a lot of alone time. Living here, I'm realizing that you have to make sure there are people in your life — and not the imaginary characters in your books, but real people.
Q: So will you stay in San Francisco, or move back to Chicago, or spend time in both places?