At school, Myra Lipinsky was the girl you'd always find in the hallway selling tickets for the prom but never actually AT the prom because nobody invited her. She was the girl that other girls (and sometimes even the boys) told their secrets to because she was 'such a good listener' but nobody ever asked for her secrets, because she didn't have any. After school she trained as a nurse and specialised in intensive care because it was the toughest discipline but she found there was something missing - the patients never said anything, never did anything, they just lay there hooked up to machines.
Myra quit intensive care and became a community nurse, taking on the difficult home visits, helping people who needed it most before returning home to her dog, Frank and her lonely life. Like many in such a situation Myra has convinced herself she's happy with her controlled and contained life but she has hit middle-age without ever being loved and so has come to the conclusion that she's just unlovable. At 51, she's got a house, a dog, a good job and a Porsche Carrera 911 (which seems more than a touch incongruous but I guess a nurse's wages are higher in the USA). What she doesn't have is a man although there have been a few men - not many - but none of them ever stayed around the morning after. She's resigned to spinsterhood.
One day the nursing agency call up and asked her to take on a new client - a terminally ill cancer patient by the name of Chip Reardon. In high school Chip was the golden boy - the one all the girls swooned over and all the boys wanted to be. But now, many years later, Chip has a brain tumour and has decided to refuse further treatment. Could this at last be her chance to have him to herself?
Chip has returned home to his parents to see out his last days. His mother wants him to fight the diagnosis, his father's not so sure, but Chip is determined to enjoy what's left of his life whilst he can and maybe Myra can be his lifeline. With so much stress at home with his folks, Chip moves in with Myra and Frank the dog which seems like the answer to Myra's prayers until his high-school sweetheart Diann comes to stay - poor Myra, in love with Chip and he's with Diann, it's all very painful.
Will Chip realise how Myra feels, will Chip realise how HE feels, will Myra allow herself to be loved, and how will the writer attempt to give a happy ending to a story that has to end with death and separation? There can be no cheesy miracle cure so how can she eke out something to send the reader away with a smile?
I've read a few of Elizaberth Berg's books and whilst I can't remember much about any of them, I'm left with a general sense of her as a writer of calm, gentle, thought provoking stories. A quote on the cover describes her as "somewhere between Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman", both writers I admire and enjoy but I'd suggest she's closer to Tyler with her tales of small town life and every day folks than to Hoffman and her magically distorted families and communities.
Berg really gets under the skin of Myra - as readers we can't help but climb into the shoes of this mousy loveless woman who can't see her own worth. We get to know Chip and Diann at a less deep level but where Berg excels for me is in writing fabulous supporting characters. Myra's patients are beautifully crafted; Rose the elderly diabetic who likes to sing; blind Fitz with the heart problem and a taste for strip clubs; Mr and Mrs Schwartz who've been married for ever and need Myra to stop them killing each other; Marvellous (yep, that's her name) who's getting use to a colostomy; Grace the teenage mother who's struggling to cope; Ann the wealthy lady whose family can't be bothered to help her with her eye drops; and finally my favourite, DeWitt the drug dealer. Yes I know that sounds odd but who else but Berg could see the good in a dealer with a gun-shot wound? As the book progresses all the characters get to know Chip and through Chip, to realise how important Myra is to all of them. There are some stunning scenes that you just know would have you in tears if they were portrayed in a film and will have you swallowing down a lump in your throat.
Berg does keep us guessing to the end. Will Chip take his own life? Will his mother invoke power of attorney to stop him and force treatment? Will Myra survive the loss of her first great love or will she also want to follow him in death? There's a lot of good stuff in here about learning to love and learning to let go. It's beautiful and it's also about the power of friendship and community.
I picked up my copy in a charity shop for 80p and would advise anyone who sees another copy to do the same. The cover price is £6.99 and it's probably sweet enough that I'd pay the full price if I had to. You all know where to get a cheaper copy - check out Amazon marketplace to start with or do a bit of googling.
To help you find it, here are the details you'll need:
Never Change, Elizabeth Berg, 214pp
ISBN - 0-09-944139-X
In the UK it's published by Random House.
Also posted on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk