Elizabeth Berg’s “The Story of Arthur Truluv” delivers a gentle tale of two octogenarians who come to the aid of a vulnerable pregnant teenager. Berg again shows her gift for creating appealing characters whose lives change in unexpected ways — in this case the affable Arthur, his solitary neighbor Lucille, who finds and loses love late in life, and the troubled Maddy.
Every day Arthur visits his wife Nola’s grave, where he eats his lunch and shares with her the memories and random thoughts swirling around him. He eases his grief by creating lively stories about the people who rest nearby. During one of his visits he notices another cemetery regular, Maddy, with “spiky black hair, pale skin, big eyes.” He wonders how old she is and worries that she needs to be wearing a coat.
At the cemetery, Maddy, who uses photography and poetry to make sense of her life, takes refuge from school, where she’s a victim of bullying. When she sees Arthur talking to the dead, she gets it. She wishes she could talk with her mother, who died when she was a baby, leaving her with an emotionally distant father who never recovered from his wife’s death. Brought together in this melancholy landscape, Arthur and Maddy become friends. She nicknames him “Truluv” because of his devotion to Nola.
Arthur has a friendly relationship with his neighbor, Lucille, a retired teacher, who never married. He finds her “a bit didactic” and “a little condescending.” Not one for introspection, she’d rather bake. Still, he often seeks her out for a bit of small talk on her porch. If he’s lucky, Lucille will pack up some of her delicious orange blossom cookies for him to take home.
When Maddy turns 18, she leaves the arid company of her father. Pregnant by her ex-boyfriend, she arrives at Arthur’s door looking for a job as his housekeeper in exchange for room and board, setting in motion a loving familial arrangement that eventually includes Lucille, who insists, “A girl needs another woman around when she’s pregnant.”
While Berg takes some improbable narrative turns, her well-drawn characters hold sway in the novel. Who can resist the kindhearted Arthur, who believes that aging means the “abandoning of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance?”
I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with these lovable people in Berg’s world of unabashed optimism. Sometimes that’s just what’s needed.
Elfrieda Abbe is a book critic in Milwaukee.
The Story of Arthur Truluv
By: Elizabeth Berg.
Publisher: Random House, 240 pages, $26.