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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : A Rude Awakening From the Dream State of Daily Life : RANGE OF MOTION, by Elizabeth Berg ; Random House; $21, 217 pages

August 24, 1995|GEORGIA JONES-DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Daily life has a way of deadening us to what really matters. Women--even more so than men as we balance work and the many mindless activities that accompany motherhood--function much of the time in a sort of semi-coma as we wearily fold laundry, clean up the kitchen, run errands, yell at the kids to clean up their rooms. A heat wave, a cold spell, a yellow moonrise--we might not pay attention to such things for days, until something awakens us: a short trip, a wild electrical storm, a tragedy.

Waking up is the point of Elizabeth Berg's small, elegant new novel, "Range of Motion"--small in its range of motion, its character count, its locales, but limitless in its philosophical scope.

It's not that 35-year-old Lainey has been any sleepier than the rest of us; she's just been caught up in the daily trivia of raising her two daughters, Sarah and Amy, and enjoying her comfortable marriage to Jay.

Then, three months prior to the day the novel opens, Jay was walking the street and a huge chunk of ice from a rooftop tumbled down on top of him. He's been in a coma ever since.

Lainey spends part of every day at the nursing home where Jay sleeps. Sometimes she brings the girls. Always she brings some physical item symbolizing their life together--his favorite sneakers or shirt or after-shave, spices he loved, foods with strong aromas. She talks to him incessantly, telling him everything that's on her mind, except her biggest fears: that he won't wake up or, worse, will die.

"Range of Motion" shuttles back and forth between Lainey's home and the nursing home--brought to grim life by snapshots of the people she meets there on a daily basis: the stressed-out nurses; the frail, old people who weep or stare off into space, a young man whose wife lies in a coma also.

Interesting things are going on at the duplex Lainey shares with her close friend Alice, who is having her own kind of husband trouble. Lainey's quandary is whether to continue living her life in a kind of holding pattern, or to carry on with work and raising her girls, whether or not Jay is present.

She must cope with older daughter Sarah's anger and fear. There is Amy, merely 4, not quite able to grasp the idea that her father isn't waking up but isn't dead either. And there is a ghostly visitor from the 1940s, too, a woman who inhabited this house a half century earlier when things seemed simpler, or so believes Lainey.

"I like to imagine this woman's whole life in this house: the line of hair escaping to blow across her face as she stood on the steps calling the kids in to dinner, the smell of her roast in the oven, potatoes browning and carrots curling in the blue-and-white speckled Dutch oven . . . 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo' came from the yellowish-white radio on top of the refrigerator. At 10:30 in the morning her phone would ring, the black and clunky phone sitting on the hall table on a doily. . . . 'Hello?' she would say, and then she'd listen to an invitation to have coffee with a neighbor. 'That'd be swell.' "

Lainey's anguish, fears and loneliness feel so real that it's almost a relief every few pages to find ourselves inside Jay's sleeping mind. He's somewhere beyond dreamland, inside a womb of disconnected memories, sensations and sounds. But's he's there , trying to work his way to the surface of this deep sea he is floating in:

"What I know now, I can never tell you back. Here are my hands, immersed in water they remember. . . . Underneath stirring, wave after wave. The sleepy sliding sideways tilt. My shoulder bone, porous gray, line of pain. Spaces between rocks, soft openings, the cool blackness. Eyes blinking, yellow thereness. What is that? A slick flash forward. Muddy river bank, the weeping willow, swaying hanging long green sickle leaves--no. Hair. Wait, your lips. You!"

"Range of Motion" is not perfect. The book feels oddly underpopulated. Alice seems to be Lainey and Jay's only friend or contact in town. Nobody shows up with a casserole and or telephones from time to time. And the subplot involving Alice's troubled marriage to Ed is less than compelling. A scene where Alice and Lainey break into an apartment they think belongs to Ed's lover is just plain farce; their failure to determine the sex of the occupant weakens the scene even more.

It may take something as painful as serious illness or a funeral to remind us that not even our most uneventful days are ordinary or will go on forever. Berg quotes a poem, "Summons," by one Robert Francis, before her novel opens: ". . . See that I see / Talk to me till / I'm half as wide awake as you / . . . Tell me the walking is superb / Not only tell me but persuade me." Berg's slender story will persuade whomever reads it to wake up a little more each day.

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