THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU
By Elizabeth Berg
Random House $25 244 pages
High school reunions are always a source of anxiety mixed with a certain pride, the fear of failure combined with a “look at me” attitude. For the class beauty, the question is will she still be better looking than her classmates. Will the class nerd be recognized, at last, for having achieved national importance. Will all the “girls” still want to impress the quarterback. Who is a success, who a failure.
In her novel, “The Last Time I Saw You,” Elizabeth Berg touches on these issues, on maturity and girlish wistfulness and male fantasy, as a group of middle-aged classmates meet for their 40th - and last - high school reunion.
As the book progresses, the author draws her readers into the psychological makeup of her characters. She writes with humor - sometimes with appropriately raucous language - kindness and skill about human frailty and dignity. She touches on issues that all of us have struggled with at some time in our lives, be it irritation with the foibles of a mate, loneliness conquered, or the ability to laugh at finding oneself in a ludicrous situation.
As for the reunion, it is almost as much fun for the reader as it is for the participants. What do these people have in common after 40 years of unconnected lives. As one of the women says, “I wanted a chance to show how much I’ve changed. I wanted you all to know how much you misjudged me.” Many people who go to reunions think that doing so can somehow change what happened to them. That the person you’ve become might erase the person you were then. But of course that doesn’t happen. … “[I]t’s not that you can’t go home again; it’s that you can never leave.”
Dorothy Shauman is a divorcee with a savvy daughter who is engaged to be married to “a proctologist, specializing in the wonderful world of … rectums.” Dorothy had a crush on football star, Pete Decker, and still carries a torch for him. She is determined to thrill him with her current good looks and end the reunion by seducing him and girlishly “making out in his car.”
But life has not gone well for Pete, who is now closer to being a jerk than a hunk. Divorced from his wife, Nora, he has been living with a young woman who is “a slob and a slacker and a bore.” He realizes “[w]hat a terrible mistake he has made. His kids will hardly speak to him, his office mates talk behind his back,” and Nora won’t take him back.
Lester Hessenpfeffer “feels he still somewhat resembles the boy he used to be, but then he guesses that everyone does that.” Lester married at 28 and lost his four-month pregnant wife, Kathleen, a year later. Since then, he had never met a woman “who moved him the way his wife did.” “[T]here is a place for Kathleen in his heart that leaves no room for anyone else.”
Lester is a veterinarian who loves his work and the animals he treats. He agrees to attend the reunion, primarily out of curiosity to see how his classmates have turned out, “even though he’d never really been close to any of them.”
Candy Sullivan was “queen of everything” in high school. Everyone was her friend, but “[t]he thing about everybody being your friend is that it can mean no one is.” She is unhappily married to a man who pays little attention to her and appreciates neither her good looks nor her kindness. For many years, “he has not complimented her, or rushed to tell her anything, or listened with any interest to anything she has to say.”
Just before attending the reunion, Candy discovers that she has cancer. She goes to sleep that night, thinking of the time she was a little girl “outside playing on a summer night. She was the first to be called in, and she resented it: the sky was violet and the clouds were pink; the fireflies were just coming out; the taste of sweat at the bend in her elbow was delectable; and the earth had given up its heat to the coolness of evening, making the grass so pleasant to lie in.”
“Death is a beginning or death is an end?”
Mary Alice Mayhew was ignored or teased in high school; she never married. “The world engaged and excited her; she looked forward to each day despite the injustices she endured in high school.” Her ninth- grade English teacher told her that “high school was good for getting a ticket into college, and that was all. … Life is long; you’ll be fine, he said, and she was.”
Mary Alice works in the toddler room at a day-care center. She “used to long for a husband; she used to date a little bit and dream, dream a little bit and date; she had a list of names she would have bestowed upon her children, had she been lucky enough to have them.” She takes care of her 92-year-old neighbor, Einer, and invites him to go along to the reunion.
It’s Mary Alice who thinks that “there’s a kind of pride in having survived a bad high school experience; it certainly makes for more interesting conversation when a group of people are comparing notes. … Though she wonders now if … even the most popular kids weren’t full of doubt and self-loathing, if they weren’t victimized by the same take-no-hostage hormones that plagued everyone else.”