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First-Person Narration Enhances Woman's Story of Self-Discovery

February 11, 2001|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Elizabeth Berg writes gentle tales about women and their lives. In "Open House," a middle-age mother begins a journey of self-discovery when her husband leaves their marriage. (HighBridge Audio; unabridged fiction; five cassettes; seven hours; $29.95; read by Becky Baker.) Oprah Winfrey chose this novel as a selection for her book club.

Nothing in this plot is new territory, but the inner dialogue that Berg wrote for her protagonist, Samantha Morrow, is smart and funny and touching. Morrow sees herself as ridiculous, then sad, then strong and finally capable. It's a realistic transition, and it works.

Morrow is a woman whose only job before marriage was as the lead singer in a rock band. This is a woman who calls Martha Stewart's 800 line for personal advice and who misses her husband, even though he was emotionally unavailable to her. Berg captures the insanity that divorce brings on, balancing the hurt with a wry humor that makes it extremely accessible.

As Morrow learns to redefine herself as a single person, renting out rooms and accepting dates brokered by her flamboyant mother, a running commentary details her inner life. This first-person narration works very well, as the spoken word brings an intimacy to the listener not found when reading those same words.

Narrator Baker captures the emotional roller coaster of Morrow's life. You can hear laughter in her voice, as well as the hurt and confusion felt by a woman who cannot understand why her world has turned inside out.

Baker's voice is on the low side. It is pretty and clear and expressive. She easily slips into a Southern accent for Morrow's mother. One small complaint: The music used to end the audio book is so loud, it's jarring when it suddenly appears.

*

The audio rental company Recorded Books has conducted an experiment that is interesting, if flawed. It has published in audio format only a novel written by one of its narrators, Ron McLarty, called "The Memory of Running." (Unabridged fiction; nine cassettes; 12 hours and 30 minutes; $78 if purchased, $17.50 if rented; read by the author. A 10th cassette includes an interview with McLarty. For information, call [800] 638-1304.)

Smithson Ide's life has taken a terrible turn. His parents have been killed in a car wreck, and the remains of his long-missing sister have turned up in Los Angeles. Not that his life had been fabulous anyway. Ide is a lonely alcoholic stuck in a dead-end, low-level management job.

When his life begins to collapse, Ide drunkenly climbs onto an old bicycle and rides away from it. Only, it turns out he is not so much running away as he is finding himself on a cross-country trip from Rhode Island to Los Angeles.

Many aspects of the story intrigue as Ide comes to life after years of anesthetizing himself with booze and food. But McLarty goes too far, inserting too many plot tangents into the story. It becomes not only about the loss of his family, but also about the effects his schizophrenic sister had on them. It is about him finally coping with his experiences in Vietnam and realizing that he actually may love the disabled woman who lives next door.

Though McLarty goes overboard with the story, he effectively creates an inner landscape for Ide. It is fascinating to hear him wake up as he struggles with emotions he had buried for years. And even if the adventures that Ide encounters on his trip are sometimes hard to swallow, the people he meets ring true. In all, a noble effort.

As an oral production, it works quite well. The plot travels back and forth in time, but there is enough space between passages so that the narrative is never confusing.

McLarty, who is a seasoned audio book narrator, has a wonderful way with words. He brings much to the story through pacing and emphasis. When Ide is drunk, McLarty's voice is thick and slow. He sounds shell-shocked after his parents' accident, and he captures the frantic urgency of Ide's neighbor as she tries to connect with him.

McLarty has an Everyman quality to his voice that is endearing. He sounds like a regular guy, which gives the story added depth. The interview with him at the end is entertaining and charming.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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