First off, let me confess that I did not "read" Smile When You're Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg, I listened to it as I quilted, drove, cleaned house, etc. However, it was the unabridged version read by Ms. Berg, herself, so I feel pretty okay reviewing it. It should be noted that Ms. Berg has a lovely speaking voice.
I really liked this book at the start. This may be my particular overlay, but given the fairly consistent limited omniscient perspective from Kitty's POV (at one point it suddenly and without explanation shifts to Louise then zips right back to Kitty) and given Kitty's predilections and the near saintliness of Louise, I started to pick up a real Austenian P&P vibe. As in, what if the story were told by Kitty. Plus, I liked Kitty. But, as we like to say in our house (a la the Simpsons), then the C.H.U.D.s came.
About halfway through, two distinct turns happened in the book that really pushed me out.
First, Berg begins to rely extensively on letters from soldiers to tell her story. Now, this Ken Burns-ian device can be effective, but the advantage Burns has is that the letters he uses are all actually written by different people. So, the voices in each letter sound different--different tone, nuance, approach, diction, etc. Berg's basically all sound the same--as though they were written by highly educated men with a penchant for 40s slang. And, golly they're long. The extreme length of the letters may not be as evident on the page--where small font, etc., can obscure things--but when they're read aloud, jeepers creepers! It's little wonder the war took so long if the troops were taking afternoons off to write epistolary novels Clarissa-style . Finally, after letter upon letter, the device wears really thin. It takes on a voice-over quality that seems desperate. I would have much rather focused on the inner lives of the Heaney family. I'm certain they have them, right?
Second, suddenly the novel becomes a rehash of American sentimental fiction wherein Kitty moves from Rosie the Riveter to a self-abnegating Little Eva-like character. At every turn, Kitty is punished--in ways both small and large. She breaks her nails and is made filthy at work; she keeps at her job because she's guilted into by her dad; she loses Julian (JULIAN? what kind of name is this for 1940s America?) to Tish; she decides to quit the job she now likes because of Hank; her boyfriend turns from supportive feminist guy to simmering rage jerk; she offers up her fiance Hank to her desperate sister; she lingers for 60 (!!) years longing for the children she never had with the husband she never had--all the while hanging with her sister who has both. And her reward? A dance at her 60th high school reunion with her ex-fiance brother-in-law. Wow, this is just full-on creepy!
All of these issues don't even take into account that the book just seems to lose steam. Key narrative events appear as lacunae. Huge decisions go unexplained. Changes in characters just happen. So much of this novel is on the surface, when it would have been so fulfilling to get a deeper portrait of the girls at home. As it is, the novel is like the cover of 40s glamour magazine--pretty but . . .