Review: Once Upon A Time, There Was You by Elizabeth Berg

Title: Once Upon A Time, There Was You

Author: Elizabeth Berg

Published: Random House October 2011

Synopsis: From the beloved New York Times bestselling author of Home Safe and The Last Time I Saw You comes a beautiful and moving novel about a man and woman, long divorced, who rediscover the power of love and family in the midst of an unthinkable crisis.  Even on their wedding day, John and Irene sensed that they were about to make a mistake. Years later, divorced, dating other people, and living in different parts of the country, they seem to have nothing in common—nothing except the most important person in each of their lives: Sadie, their spirited eighteen-year-old  daughter. Feeling smothered by Irene and distanced from John, Sadie is growing more and more attached to her new boyfriend, Ron.
When tragedy strikes, Irene and John come together to support the daughter they love so dearly. What takes longer is to remember how they really feel about each other.

Status: Read from October 11 to 12, 2011 — I own a copy   {Courtesy Random House/NetGalley}

My Thoughts:

I didn’t enjoy Once Upon a Time, There Was You as much as I hoped I would. In truth though the premise of Elizabeth’s Berg’s books always sound like something I would love I haven’t had much success with her novels. It doesn’t stop me from trying again though because I am sure it’s just a matter of reading the right one at the right time.
Even though I didn’t particularly care for Irene I liked how Berg explored the bond between a mother trying hard to hold on to her child and a daughter determined to become independent. I do empathise with Irene, as any mother of a teenage daughter knows, it is a constant tug of war between allowing her the independence she needs and wanting to protect her from poor decisions. While I was tempted to consider Sadie a brat, I also recall the scorn I felt for my mother when she deemed something inappropriate and the lengths I went to in order to avoid the hassle I expected if I chose to do something I knew she wouldn’t approve of. Irene holds on just that bit too tight though so that Sadie at eighteen is lacking maturity which results in a nearly fatal crisis from an impulsive decision.
While Sadie’s drama would seem to be the focal point of the novel, so much of this story is about Irene and John’s relationship post divorce and a sort of post mortem of their marriage. I think I know what Berg was aiming for with this but for me, because we never really see any of their marriage, I don’t much care about their divorce or really get any insight into what went wrong. The characters of Irene and John themselves are much more well developed than their relationship.
On reflection, Once Upon A Time, There Was You seemed oddly disjointed and I felt as if parts of the story were missing. It also seems to be crowded with themes that don’t really go anywhere and the plot is stretched rather thin in places. I think the book would have been stronger if Berg had kept Irene in focus instead of trying to share the story with John and Sadie. For me Once Upon A Time, There Was You has weaknesses that just out balance the strengths.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting
    Oct 20, 2011 @ 11:29:19

    Great review, Shelleyrae. I can see how this concept could easily go awry–it’s one that’s heavily reliant on sympathetic characters, and when this doesn’t happen, it’s easy to struggle as a reader. The book I’m about to review today had similar issues regarding the dilution of the main character POVs: chopping and changing can really weaken a story, particularly when one character’s plotline is more enticing than the other’s!

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Oct 21, 2011 @ 16:05:06

      Yes it’s hard to find much sympathy for them and particularly when the plot isn’t strong enough to compensate either

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  2. mari (Bookworm with a View)
    Oct 20, 2011 @ 22:46:35

    I agree with you, I listened to this book last summer and didn’t connected to the story like I thought I would. I want to like Berg’s novels so much that I keep trying them.

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  3. Kailana
    Oct 21, 2011 @ 01:41:54

    I have the same problem with Berg. I was always liking the sound of her books, but then when I tried to read them they never worked for me. I have since given up, to be honest.

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