Range of Motion

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Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg, book reviewJay lies in the hospital, the victim of a freak accident so bizarre that your first instinct is to laugh when you hear about it. He was walking down the street when a lump of ice fell off a roof and hit him on the head. It sounds like the sort of story you’d pass around in a “You’ll never believe what I heard” kind of way. Problem is that it’s not funny and Jay’s been in a coma for weeks.

Jay’s wife Lainey is the focus of Elizabeth Berg’s 1995 novel ‘Range of Motion’ whose title is taken from the exercises the medical staff put Jay through as he lies in his silent world. It’s also – according to Wikipedia “the distance that a movable object may normally travel while properly attached to another object”. Perhaps Lainey is the movable object and Jay’s the one to whom she’s attached – I’m not sure if the double meaning was intended. In the book we get to know Lainey and we shadow her life going back and forth to the hospital, moving Jay to the nursing home, looking after their two daughters and soldiering on thanks to a good healthy dose of optimism and the support of her friend and neighbour Alice. She’s got another friend too – Evie is ghostly presence in the house, the spirit of a woman who lived there in the 1940s who dispenses suitably wholesome and cheery advice and keeps Lainey company in her darkest hours. In just over 250 pages we’re invited into the life of Lainey and her family, get to know the nurses and the other patients, and sit with Lainey as she tries to hold it all together for her sake, for the kids and for Jay.

Lainey tries all sorts of techniques to break through to her unconscious husband. She takes his favourite clothes, she waves spices under his nose and reminds him where he’s smelt them, she brings his favourite foods but most of all she (and the nurses) never stops talking to the silent man, lying in the bed and she never stops believing that one day he will wake up. There are the occasional distractions of work, of talking to the good looking man at the nursing home whose wife has been in a coma 3 months longer than Jay, and with Alice’s help she and Lainey keep the kids entertained. Alice needs help too; she thinks her husband’s cheating on her and she doesn’t know how to win him back.

I believe that this is the earliest of the Elizabeth Berg novels that I’ve read and in many ways it’s the simplest. Berg is not someone I go hunting for but whenever one of her books crosses my path it leaves a strong impression behind. She’s not a writer for those who like action packed adventure because her books are characterised by not a lot happening but what does happen is always beautifully and compellingly described. She tends to deal very quietly and gently with some of life’s big painful issues, probably appealing more to readers who’ve had a few knocks along the way and aren’t perhaps in the first flush of youthful optimism. It’s hard to write a book that the reader can enjoy about a topic as sad as dealing with a loved one who’s in a type of suspended animation but Berg pulls it off.

As readers we know that there are three possible outcomes for Jay – that he recovers, that he dies or that he just stays the same for an impossible-to-bear long time. We guess from the short length of the book that the last of these is unlikely but not impossible. There are no hints about which direction the book will take and no mystical mumbo-jumbo of flickering eyelids or little hand squeezes but despite these we can’t help but keep the faith with Lainey and hope for the best.

The minor characters are lightly but brightly painted. Alice is the neighbour everyone would love to have, her husband Ed is an oddly uncomfortable character. The nurses who seem at first to be brash soon show layers of feeling and empathy that weren’t signalled at the beginning. The kids go through the mill of doubt, believing that their father is already dead and their mum just won’t tell them, fearing yet loving to visit him, playing at ‘coma’ with their friends and generally not quite knowing what to do next.

The novel is good but not perfect. I was a little irritated by the italicised ‘voice’ of Jay that was peppered amidst Lainey’s story. I also found the ghostly figure of Evie rather unnecessary and not particularly helpful to the progression of the book. But I didn’t hate either enough to tell you not to read it. Lainey’s strength is inspirational and believable at the same time and whilst this isn’t a book I’d read more than once, I enjoyed it and it stirred me to think about how I might react under similar circumstance although obviously I hope I never have to.

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Range of Motion
by Elizabeth Berg

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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