Ladies, are your brains too fried from the summer heat to get through a hefty book-club tome? Then put that one aside and instead spend a few days reading Elizabeth Berg's collection of short stories, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation.
Sorry, guys, we don't mean to exclude you, but Berg usually writes for and about women. Having said that, it's not fair to characterize her as a “chick lit” author, because she's much better than that. It's true that a few of her books might strike some readers as lightweight, but that's not the case here. These stories offer insightful looks at different stages of women's lives. And, in all of them, food is an important element.
In the title story, the narrator goes AWOL from her Weight Watchers meeting and proceeds to eat whatever she feels like, starting with a box of Dunkin' Donuts. Eventually, she “was feeling the shame but also defiance. Like, here, I'm carrying the banner for all of you who cut off a little piece wanting a big one.”
An elderly woman writes a rambling letter to a younger friend, in “How to Make an Apple Pie,” including this baking advice: “I should have said first thing to do when you make an apple pie is put on an apron and some good music. … I don't know why you cook better in an apron, but it's true. And if it's at all a nice day out, I suggest you open the kitchen door and cook barefoot.”
In one of the strongest stories, “Full Count,” 12-year-old Janey takes a road trip with her parents to visit family. We learn that Janey loves her grandfather more than she does her parents, and that she suffers from night terrors, afraid of dying. Her grandfather tells her: “Well, next time it happens … go very quietly into the kitchen and turn on the light and sit at the table and eat an orange. Will you do that for me?” Janey doesn't understand why her parents exchange looks when she asks for french fries or another piece of pie. It's only later, when a cousin she idolizes makes a cruel remark, does she get that what she eats is now considered a problem.
The book's best story is “Rain,” about the long, complicated friendship between the female narrator and Michael. As the narrator gets married and starts a family, Michael abandons a successful career writing ad copy for junk food to build a house in the country. There's a sexual tension in the ongoing friendship, which is never acted on. When the narrator first visits Michael's house and sees “vegetables in colors so vibrant they looked fake,” she suddenly regrets not having gone with him years ago, but realizes that “everything that let me appreciate what I saw around me now was unripened in me then.”
Originally published in hardcover in 2008, the new paperback edition (recommended by Oprah!) has a bonus story and a reader's guide. There's also an interview with Berg. You gotta love an author who includes a confession about her own guilty indulgences: “My favorite splurge is homemade chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream or a Sausage McMuffin with egg or scalloped potatoes or turkey yanked right off the carcass and dipped in gravy or See's chocolate.”
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