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Berne, Suzanne 1961–

Berne, Suzanne 1961–

PERSONAL:

Born January 17, 1961, in Washington, DC; daughter of Henry (a psychotherapist) and Patricia (a psychologist) Berne; married Kenneth Kimmell (an attorney), September 24, 1989; children: Avery Patricia, Louisa Berne. Education: Wesleyan University, B.A., 1982; University of Iowa Writers Workshop, M.F.A., 1985. Politics: Democrat.

ADDRESSES:

Agent—Colleen Mohyde, Doe Coover Agency, P.O. Box 668, Winchester, MA 01890.

CAREER:

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, expository writing preceptor, 1988-92, member of extension school faculty, 1989-95, Radcliffe College Seminars faculty member, 1990-93, instructor in fiction, 1995-99, Department of English Briggs-Copeland fellow, 1999-2000, visiting lecturer in English, 2000-01; Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, adjunct lecturer in English, 2007—.

MEMBER:

PEN New England Center.

AWARDS, HONORS:

College Fiction Award, Ms. magazine, 1981; Bay Area Fiction Award, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1994; PEN/Discovery honoree for fiction, 1995; Massachusetts Cultural Council artist grant, 1996; Art Seidenbaum Award finalist, Los Angeles Times, 1997, Edgar Allan Poe Award finalist, Mystery Writers of America, 1997, and Orange Prize winner (Great Britain), 1999, all for A Crime in the Neighborhood; notable book designation, New York Times, 1997, for A Crime in the Neighborhood, and 2001, for A Perfect Arrangement.

WRITINGS:

A Crime in the Neighborhood, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1997.

A Perfect Arrangement, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2001.

The Ghost at the Table: A Novel, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2006.

Contributor of essays to anthologies, including The Place Within: Essays on Landscape by Twenty Contemporary American Writers, W.W. Norton (New York, NY); and, The Quiet Center: Women Writers Reflecting on Life's Passages, Hearst Books. Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Epoch, Threepenny Review, Cimarron Review, Playgirl, Mademoiselle, Conjunctions, and Ms; contributor of essays and reviews to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, New York Times, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Boston Globe Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, Boston Review, Belles Lettres, Commonweal, Victoria, House Beautiful, San Francisco Chronicle, Guardian, and Independent.

Berne's novels have been translated into several languages.

SIDELIGHTS:

Suzanne Berne is a family-oriented writer who focuses her novels on the average suburban neighborhood. The genuine feeling behind her writing and her ability to communicate the fragility of her characters' emotions and circumstances have earned the author considerable praise.

Berne's multi-award-winning debut novel, 1997's A Crime in the Neighborhood, takes place in the early 1970s and focuses on the Eberhardt family as they are rocked by the adultery of father Larry, the brutal murder of a young neighborhood boy, and the unfolding Watergate scandal. Berne's narrator, the daughter of Larry Eberhardt, tells the story as a grown woman, recounting her experiences and emotions as an impressionable ten year old. Dubbing the novel an "impressive literary debut," Booklist contributor Michele Leber pointed to the author's ability to express "the potentially devastating effects of one person's actions on others." Praising the novel's "seamless narrative structure" and "extraordinary sense of lightness and suspense," a Publishers Weekly contributor called A Crime in the Neighborhood "a resonant portrait of a girl's, a community's and a country's loss of innocence."

In her second novel, A Perfect Arrangement, Berne once again focuses on a family overcoming the difficulties of modern life. Here a married couple struggles to reconnect after having been emotionally distant due to busy schedules and the demands of job and family. Meanwhile, the seemingly perfect caregiver they hired for their children appears to be unusually possessive. Imbued with "chilling inevitability, this carefully observed, beautifully written book proceeds to a horrifying finale," remarked Judith Kicinski in a review for Library Journal. While a Publishers Weekly contributor criticized Berne's characters as "studiously drawn archetypes," the reviewer gave the novel high marks overall. "Berne is an assured writer and is at her best with careful, observant descriptions of family life," the contributor concluded.

Five years separated publication of Berne's second novel and her third, 2006's A Ghost at the Table: A Novel, another piece of fiction focusing on the family. It is, additionally, according to Ron Charles writing in the Washington Post Book World, "very much a novel about the way we shape and sanctify our memories and then allow those memories to control us." Berne's novel turns out to be a feat of historical exhumation as two estranged sisters gather for Thanksgiving at their family home in Concord, Massachusetts; one is eager to put the past behind her, the other is controlled by family history. Frances hopes to bring the family back together again with this holiday visit, but the younger Cynthia is not over eager to return to her childhood home from her new life as a writer in San Francisco. The reader views the proceedings largely through the voice of Cynthia, a narrator who cannot always be relied upon for objective observation. Meanwhile, Frances's recollections of the same incidents take on a more positive hue, and the reader is left to sort out the truth.

Writing in the Guardian Online, Carrie O'Grady observed that Berne opted for a risky technique in this third novel: instead of finally unraveling the past for the reader, "she skillfully knots the threads still further, revealing fresh complexities in every chapter." Central to the book is the death of Mrs. Fiske, the sisters' mother, when they were teenagers and their philandering father's subsequent remarriage to the young woman who was their tutor at the time. Both have viewed this incident in vastly different ways. This establishes the twin points of view of the main characters: Frances, who views the family history through the rosy lens of her childhood optimism, and Cynthia, whose cynicism charges all of her recollections.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic had high praise for A Ghost at the Table. Writing in the Boston Globe, Carol Iaciofano commented: "Berne masterfully explores the parallel realities that can endure after a great sadness." A Kirkus Reviews critic called A Ghost at the Table a "substantial tale of a dysfunctional family reunion [that] promises a holiday, and a read, to remember." A reviewer for O, the Oprah Magazine termed the novel a "crash course in sibling rivalry, with its cutthroat dueling for dominance and parental love," while Jennifer Reese, writing in Entertainment Weekly, observed: "Berne turns a witty tale of holiday dysfunction into a transfixing borderline gothic." Likewise, a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Berne's "astute observation and narrative cunning" in this "taut psychological drama." Reviewers in the United Kingdom were also won over by the novel. Zoe Paxton, writing in the London Times, described it as "an immaculately executed character study [that] becomes an altogether more intelligent and unnerving critique of the pitfalls of memory." Reviewing the novel in the London Independent Online, Charlie Lee-Potter considered A Ghost at the Table "a satisfying and complex story that adds up to more than its parts." And O'Grady concluded that the novel is not only "gripping and hugely satisfying, filled with Berne's characteristic appreciation of small, sensual details, but it reminds you that other families may be in even worse shape than your own."

Berne once told CA: "In trying to think of something interesting to say about my writing process, I find that not much comes to mind that hasn't already been said, with varying degrees of eloquence and frustration, by many other writers before me. Not that many other writers have had the same writing process as mine, but there is a good deal of commonality: You sit down, you put something on paper, and you rewrite it. Eventually, if you have worked hard enough, and are lucky enough, whatever you wrote gets published. And then you start all over again. People never believe that's all there is to it, and they're right—so much else goes into writing a story than sitting down in front of a piece of paper (or a computer screen nowadays)—but they're also wrong: sitting down and putting something on paper is the writing process.

"The only aspect of my writing process that might be a little unusual is that I like to begin with a technical problem. It makes starting something new seem less intimidating if you start by thinking you're simply experimenting with narrative perspective or shifting tenses or writing about a murder when you've never done anything like that before. That's how I began my first novel—as a simple exercise: write about a murder. My second novel began when I decided to try to create three different points of view that all were experiencing the same set of events, but quite differently.

"Doesn't that sound easy? But it takes years and years, after you get started, to make any sense out of those first ideas, however they arrive. At least it takes me years and years. I spent seven years writing a novel that will never be published (because it's not very good). The next one took five…. Flannery O'Connor once said that being a fiction writer requires ‘a grain of stupidity,’ the need to stare and stare before you understand something. I would agree with that analysis."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, April 15, 1997, Michele Leber, review of A Crime in the Neighborhood, p. 1385; August 1, 2006, Joanne Wilkinson, review of A Ghost at the Table: A Novel, p. 36.

Boston Globe, October 18, 2006, Carol Iaciofano, review of A Ghost at the Table.

Entertainment Weekly, October 20, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 84.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2006, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 737.

Library Journal, May 1, 2001, Judith Kicinski, review of A Perfect Arrangement, p. 125; July 1, 2006, Leigh Anne Vrabel, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 61.

New Statesman, November 6, 2006, Elinor Cook, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 60.

O, the Oprah Magazine, November, 2006, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 240.

Publishers Weekly, March 31, 1997, review of A Crime in the Neighborhood, p. 59; April 16, 2001, review of A Perfect Arrangement, p. 45; June 12, 2006, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 26.

School Library Journal, January, 2007, Jenny Gasset, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 164.

Times (London, England), October 21, 2006, Zoe Paxton, review of A Ghost at the Table.

Washington Post Book World, October 15, 2006, Ron Charles, review of A Ghost at the Table, p. 6.

ONLINE

Guardian Online,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (October 28, 2006), Carrie O'Grady, review of A Ghost at the Table.

Independent Weekly (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC) Online,http://www.indyweek.com/ (November 22, 2006), Adam Sobsey, review of A Ghost at the Table.

London Independent Online, http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/ (November 19, 2006), Charlie Lee-Potter, review of A Ghost at the Table.

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