Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Range of Motion

I had a hard time getting past the first sentence because I disagreed with it.
They say that one of the reasons for tragedy is that you learn important lessons from it.
I don't think tragedy happens for any reason. I think it just happens. We may learn important things in the wake of tragedy, but that isn't why tragedy happens.

This novel, Range of Motion, by Elizabeth Berg, is written in the first person and I tend to not like first person novels for just this reason. I find it harder to get beyond statements like these conveyed in the first person than when the exact same point of view is attributed to a character in the third person. And when I disagree with the thought patterns of the main character in the very first sentence, I find it hard to move on into the novel and lose myself.

But, I was on a plane and had brought no other book, so eventually I got past the first sentence and things improved immeasurably. This novel is the story of Lainey, a young mother of two. Her husband, Jay, is in a coma.
He walked past a building, and a huge chunk of ice fell off the roof, and it hit him on the head. This is Chaplinesque, right?
The phrase range of motion describes the passive exercises that coma victims get from their care givers:
He can't move at all. So every day, a few times a day, someone must put each of Jay's body parts through all the movements of which they are capable. First the thumb is bent, then straightened, then bent and straightened again, twice more. Next, each finger is done individually; then the whole hand, fingers all together. Then comes the wrist, then the elbow, and so on.
Range of motion also describes Lainey's life as she goes through the motions each day, taking care of her kids, visiting Jay, trying to believe things will work out.

This could have been a depressing novel but it wasn't. And partly that's because Berg peoples Lainey's world with characters that a reader can care about. Her kids, Sarah and Amy, who don't really understand what is happening with their dad. Her neighbor, Alice, who is a godsend to Lainey but who is having trouble with her own husband, Ed. Alice's son Timothy, whom Berg renders as a loveable brilliant geek. Of course all the people at the nursing home where Jay lays in bed. Berg even throws in a character who might be a ghost or only an hallucination.

Although Lainey is an optimist and believes that one day Jay will wake up, Berg is careful not to make the story too predictable or too sacharine. Not that this isn't the perfect Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-teevee novel. But that doesn't really affect it's impact.

At 250 pages this is an easy read, although the subject matter is sometimes difficult. I think Berg was aiming for a novel that reads like the kind of memoirs that are popular these days: "How I made it through a really hard time in my life". She succeeded.