Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- Elizabeth Bergs writing style is spare, clear, accessible, and deft.
Does it fit her material? Do you think it is easy to write this way?
- Berg titles this collection Ordinary Life and her characters are
all ordinary people. What is meant by the term ordinary in this book?
And what is it about ordinary life and ordinary people that is so
- In the title story, Mavis McPherson locks herself in the bathroom for a
few days. Why? What good does it do? What harm? What happens in that
bathroom, and what difference will the time she spent there cast over the
rest of her life?
- Martha in Things We Used to Believe sees herself as severely
married. What does this tell us about her character? How does she describe
her relationship with Alan? What do you think their relationship is? In the
end, when she agrees she is bad, what does she mean?
- Illness, in Ordinary Life, is seen as a Departure from
Normal. How do people with terminal illnesses reconnect with so-called
ordinary life? How could people who are estranged by illness come to feel
less estranged, more a part of life? If you were given a bad diagnosis, what
would help you feel less isolated and different?
- In Caretaking and in Sweet Refuge, people are called on to care
for others. In Caretaking, the daughter and her mother take turns as
caregiver; in Sweet Refuge, Abby has her mind and heart opened by Richard.
How do the ill care for us? What can we learn from people who are nearer to
death than we are?
- Adultery is a subject in several stories: Things We Used to
Believe, Regrets Only, What Stays, and White Dwarf. In White Dwarf,
George says of adultery, These things happen. How does his assessment
strike you? How does Berg portray adultery in these diverse stories? Does
she approve or disapprove of it? Is adultery necessarily bad? Does it
necessarily deserve forgiveness?
- In Regrets Only, Laurence, a gay man, seeks to set his dying
mothers mind at ease about his sexual identity by introducing her to a fake
girlfriend. Was this a good idea on any level? What effect did this
deception have on him? What did it have on his friend who poses as the
girlfriend? What did she learn from their shared kissabout herself, about
him, about her marriage?
- George in White Dwarf says, Men dont talk. But in many of these
stories, men do talksome reluctantly, in response to women forcing them,
and often frankly, openly, even heartlessly (Take This Quiz, Martins
Letter to Nan, White Dwarf). What do they say? And what do you think
about it? Do you think men and women communicate differently, as Berg
suggests? What is your experience in the ongoing dialogue between men and
- Martins Letter to Nan is the last story Elizabeth Berg wrote in
Ordinary Life, yet it sits in the middle of the book. Why do you
think she arranged the stories in the way that she did, with the title story
first, and this story in the middle??
- Berg says that the writing of Martins Letter to Nan was fun.
What, do you suppose, made
- What does the thief in The Thief steal? Why do you think Jonathan
Hansen picked out Kate Conway to rob?What happened between him and Kate
Conway? Should she have called the police?
- Kate, the narrator of One Time at Christmas, in My Sisters
Bathroom, is at a crisis point in her relationship with her
incommunicative, critical father, Sam. Everybody else in her family seems to
take Sam in stride, so why does Kate have such trouble with him? When Kate
goes into the bathroom and cries, what is she crying about? What happens
during the course of time Kate spends in that bathroom? What has changed by
the time shes left it?
- Sarah Harris in The Matchmaker is eleven, in fullblown
adolescence, see-sawing between childhood and adulthood and trying,
step-by-step, to make her own way in the world. What does she do thats
childlike? When does she step into an adult role? How does she feel about
her growing personal power?
- In the story What Stays, a mother is forced to leave her family
for treatments at a mental hospital. Lizzy, her daughter, sees and describes
more of the situation than she can really understand. How does Bergs
techniqueusing what is called an unreliable first person narratoradd to
the impact of this story? What do we readers understand that the child
Lizzie doesnt? How would the story be different if told from the fathers
point of view? From the older sisters point of view? From the mothers
point of view?
- Todays Special was the first short story that Elizabeth Berg
wrote, yet it is placed last in this book. Why do you think she did that?
What are the concerns and elements in Todays Special that Berg returns
to, expands,and elaborates on in other stories? How have her interests and
- If you had to choose a favorite story in this collection which would
it be? What are the elements of the story that most appealed to you? Which
story did you find least engaging?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.