Picks and Pans Review: Range of Motion

updated 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Elizabeth Berg

So what brings you here?" a guy in a bar asks Lainey Berman. When she bluntly responds that her husband is in a coma and she needs a break from her overwhelming grief, Mr. Suave slinks away, muttering, "That's not funny."

If you're familiar with her earlier novels Talk Before Sleep (1994) or Durable Goods (1993), then you know that turning to Elizabeth Berg for a thigh-slapping read is not a wise use of time. Working on an intimate, first-person canvas, Berg always takes on the big issues: living, loving and loss.

Here, narrator Lainey, wife of the near-perfect Jay and mother of two adorable daughters, is steadfast and vigilant during the months that her husband lies motionless in a nursing home outside St. Paul. Neither the doctors, the nurses nor next-door neighbor Alice believe Jay will regain consciousness, but Lainey has an unswerving faith. She also has the spirit of Evie, a woman who lived in Lainey's duplex during the 1940s, an apparition who floats through the house dispensing bits of down-home wisdom.

Lainey, like Berg's previous heroines, knows how to crack wise, which she does to good effect with uncomely but faithful Alice, whose marriage is unraveling in an unexpected manner. Tough as titanium, the bond between these two women helps Lainey deal with the darkness that has descended on her world.

As she talks to Jay, bringing him gifts and flowers and hope, we're drawn into her newly acquired awareness of life's fragility. This is the terrifically talented Berg at her best. (Random House, $21)

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