I love spending time in Mason, Mo. So must Elizabeth Berg, who with “The Confession Club” returns for the third time to her fictional hamlet and its cast of odd, endearing citizens. That cast has grown to encompass a new gaggle of women — young and old, proper matrons and cranky rule-breakers — who make up the gathering of the title.
It all started innocently as the Third Sunday Supper Club, a companionable evening that evolved into a confidence-sharing, soul-baring session. Now, none of these confessions is too shocking — no murder, no infidelity. Lacking true scandal, the members live by the practical motto “The truth is always interesting,” and you’ll nod along with that sentiment as Gretchen admits her wish to divorce her children or Dodie reveals that she’s dating an exhibitionist. But the Confession Club only forms the framework of this tale, serving as provocateur, comic relief, affirming Greek chorus.
The real story is Iris Winter’s. Floundering and pushing 50, Iris has found in Mason a respite from the big city and a bad marriage. Hardly able to boil water when she arrived, she’s built a thriving baking-class business from scratch. She feels safe, settled. But life cooks up a surprise.
His name is John, and a handsomer, handier, more poetic drifter you’ll never meet. Moments after their first encounter — in a true middle-age meet-cute — “Iris decides something. She is going to iron her white cotton dress with lace at the yoke. ... She is going to buy a red bicycle and paint white polka dots on it. She is going to affix a basket onto the handlebars, and fill it every day with incidental offerings, which abound. She is going to unearth her one slim volume of Yeats.” The air is suddenly brighter and softer.
Courtship with a homeless man who suffers from Vietnam-spawned PTSD isn’t all poetry, of course. And you can bet the Confession Clubbers (whose presence, to be honest, sometimes feels intrusive) have their say about it when they warily welcome Iris and Maddy into their fold. Yes, Maddy, the through-line of the Mason books who graduated from surly, vulnerable teen in “The Story of Arthur Truluv” to wise young mother in “Night of Miracles” is back under Iris’ roof. May future stories follow her into her dotage.
You needn’t have read the previous Mason installments to savor “The Confession Club,” although your appreciation of the warm world Berg has created will deepen, Her language is gentle, her stories complex: simple outside and rich inside, like a pound cake from Iris’ kitchen.
Cynthia Dickison is a designer at the Star Tribune. 612-673-4639
The Confession Club
By: Elizabeth Berg.
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 290 pages, $26.