Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Books: "The Operator" By Gretchen Berg

The Operator
By Gretchen Berg
William Morrow; hardcover, $27.99; available today, Tuesday, March 10

Gretchen Berg, who was born on the East Coast and raised in the Midwest, taught English in South Korea and in Northern Iraq, and has traveled to all the other continents. Her debut novel, The Operator, is set in small-town 1950's America, and has a masterfully woven plot that dovetails topics of class, feminism, race, and karma.

Vivian Dalton knows the people of Wooster, Ohio, better than anyone, and she would be the first to tell you that. She thinks it's intuition, while her daughter, Charlotte, calls it eavesdropping. Vivian and the other women at Ohio Bell aren't supposed to listen in on conversations, but they do, and all have opinions on what is heard.

One cold December night, Vivian listens in on a call between Betty Miller, who is known to be a snob, and someone whose voice she can't quite place and hears something shocking. Betty's mystery friend has news that, if proven to be true, will shatter Vivian's tidy life, humiliating her and making her the laughingstock of the town.

A determined search for the truth takes Vivian out of her comfort zone, in what is the first of many steps that will bring meaningful transformation to her life. Meanwhile, Vivian's secrets aren't the only ones that come out. 

Through a series of explosive events, including a shocking case of embezzlement, skeletons come tumbling out of the closet - even for some of Wooster's most prominent residents - in plot twists that unfold like a vintage game of "telephone."

The relationship between Vivian, and ordinary middle-class woman, and Betty, the privileged daughter of the town's mayor, captured the class tensions in a community where everyone knows each other.

The narrative is loosely inspired by the author's grandmother, who was a Bell switchboard operator in the 1950s and weathered many of the same personal disasters as Vivian Dalton.

The Operator examines the social dilemmas of mid-20th century America, and raises moral questions that begs for more discussion.

In this excerpt, Berg gives a glimpse into Vivian's place in the town of Wooster, "That's the thing about small towns. Everyone knew everyone else's business. Vivian certainly knew everyone else's business, but more important, she knew people. Vivian Dalton knew people, that was for certain, and she'd be the first to tell you that. She'd say it was more from intuition than from eavesdropping on people's telephone calls, but her daughter, Charlotte, would say, 'No, it's from the eavesdropping.'

Charlotte joked with her friends, putting on airs for amusement, saying her mother was privy to myriad conversations among the good people of Wooster. Now, 'privy' and 'myriad' were two words Vivian would've used if she'd known what they meant. She wasn't stupid, but her schooling hadn't gone any further than grade eight at Bowman Street School. Vivian never would've seen 'privy' and 'myriad' printed next to the splashy photos in her fashion and movie magazines. Charlotte had to roll her eyes and sigh as she explained to her friends, 'My mother doesn't trust people who read books.'

It was a shame Vivian didn't know words like 'privy' and 'myriad,' because she would've loved them. They sounded fancy and expensive. They sounded like words the four-flushers on the north side of Wooster probably used all the time, even at Buehler's when they were buying whatever it was they bought there. Their prime rib and lobster claws and bushels of caviar or whatnot. Vivian eavesdropped, and also did her share of peering into people's shopping carts at the grocery store. Yes, people like the Millers probably used words like 'privy' and 'myriad' at Buehler's. All four of their rich kids probably privyed and myriaded all over the place. Little Bitty and Charles Junior probably used those words when they were talking to Sober Santa at Freedlander's."

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