Say When

Say When

by Elizabeth Berg


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When is a marriage worth saving and when is it best to let go? When do half-truths turn into full-blown lies? When does betrayal end and passion begin?
Say When is a compelling, complex novel that takes readers into the heart of a modern marriage where companionship and intimacy, and denial and pain, so often collide. "Of course he knew she was seeing someone," begins the story of Frank Griffin, a man who's willing to overlook his wife's infidelity — he would let her have this, this thrilling little romance — for the sake of keeping his family intact. But when the forty-year-old Ellen requests a divorce on the basis that she has finally found true, romantic love, Griffin must decide whether to fight or flee...or search elsewhere for the kind of life he always dreamed of.
With Elizabeth Berg's trademark blend of rare insight, raw emotion, and hard-won wisdom, Say When is a work of startling revelation that no reader will soon forget.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743411370
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: 04/20/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 766,221
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Berg is the author of ten national bestselling novels, including the New York Times bestsellers True to Form, Never Change, and Open House, which was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000. Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as American Library Association Best Books of the Year, and Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for the ABBY award in 1996. The winner of the 1997 New England Booksellers Award for her body of work, she is also the author of a nonfiction work, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True. She lives in Chicago.


Chicago, Illinois

Date of Birth:

December 2, 1948

Place of Birth:

St. Paul, Minnesota


Attended the University of Minnesota; St. Mary¿s College, A.A.S.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Of course he knew she was seeing someone. He knew who it was, too. Six months ago, saying she needed a new direction in her life, saying she was tired of feeling helpless around anything mechanical, that she had no idea how to even change a tire, Ellen had taken a course in basic auto mechanics — "Know Your Car," it was called. She'd come back the first night saying it was amazing, she'd had the admittedly elitist idea that mechanics were illiterate, but this one was so well-spoken, and he'd walked into the classroom carrying a pile of books he'd just bought — hardback! Mostly new fiction, she'd said. But also Balzac, because he'd never read him.

"How do you know?" Griffin had asked.

"Know what?"

"How do you know he's never read Balzac?"

"Because he told me. I had a question after class and then we just started talking...."

"What was your question?"

She stared at him, a tight smile on her face. Then she said, "My question was about the battery."

"But what about it?"

She looked down, embarrassed. "I wanted to know how you clean it. Okay?"

"Why didn't you ask me?"

"Oh, for — "

"No. Why didn't you ask me? I could have told you."

"Because," she said, slowly and deliberately, "it never came up between us. It came up because I am taking a class about cars. And I had a question for the teacher. Jesus, Griffin. What is this?"

"Nothing," he'd said. "Forget it."

Griffin didn't forget it, of course. Week after week, he'd watched Ellen dress for class, each time paying more attention to herself: fresh eyeliner just before she left one week, a more deliberate hairstyle the next, a lingering scent of perfume in the bedroom the night she'd gotten ready for the last class — the ridiculously expensive perfume Griffin had given her for her last birthday, for the record. He felt helpless against her drift toward another man, felt as though he were standing around stirring change in his pocket when he should be waging an earth-pawing kind of war. But the truth was that from the time he'd married her ten years ago, he'd been waiting for something like this to happen. She was always just beyond his grasp, in one way or another. He supposed, actually, that her cool reserve was one of the things that attracted him to her.

She couldn't be serious about this obvious attraction to someone else. She was nearing forty, that was all. He would let her have this, this secret relationship, this thrilling little romance. Let her and Mr. Goodwrench meet for coffee and have moony-eyed discussions about Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda and Seamus Heaney, all of Ellen's precious poets. Let her talk until she was finally exhausted by all that "so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow" crap, by all those supposedly deep thoughts written by people who were undoubtedly a bunch of first-class hypocrites. Ellen seemed to think her pale gods spent all of their time sitting at their desks in rapturous torture, scribbling away with quill pens, when in fact they were probably mostly standing around scratching their asses and contemplating the contents of their refrigerators just like everybody else. It might actually be a relief for her to have someone to talk about that stuff with, so she would finally stop trying to make Griffin swoon over it — though lately she'd been pretty good about not asking him to read anything. She wasn't sleeping with the guy, Griffin was sure of that. She would never do that.

He leaned over her now and looked at her, her hair splayed over half her face. She was not a beautiful woman, but Griffin had never met anyone who appealed to him more. She exuded an earthy sensuality made more attractive by the fact that she didn't know it. "I love to look at you," he sometimes told her. "You're just...perfect." "Oh, God, Griffin," she would say. "Stop."

She moaned slightly in her sleep. Griffin lay his hand on her shoulder, then slid it down her back and onto her palm-sized sacrum. When she was in labor with Zoe, he'd given her a back rub against the awesome waves of pain. When he'd felt her sacrum, he'd thought it was the baby's head and had yelled, "It's coming!"

"Ohhhhhhhhh, really?" Ellen had moaned. "Really?"

"Yes, it's coming," he'd said, for a good forty-five minutes or more, until the doctor came in and informed him that he was not feeling the baby's head at all. They'd chuckled together over his erroneous assumption.

Ellen had gotten furious. "This isn't funny!" she'd said.

The doctor had winked at Griffin. "Pain pretty strong, Ellen?"

He was met with a nearly palpable silence.

"She's doing really well," Griffin said, then added proudly, "She hasn't had any medication!"

"Well, it's too late for that now, anyway," the doctor said.

"Why don't both of you just shut up?" Ellen said, and the doctor had winked again. "She's in transition," he'd whispered to Griffin. He patted Ellen's foot, and left.

Now, eight years later, Ellen seemed to be in another kind of transition. She was preoccupied: bereft-looking when she thought Griffin didn't see her, guarded when she knew he could. Twice he'd heard her on the phone when he came home, saying hurriedly, "I have to go." She wouldn't talk to him, not really, except to fill him in on necessary bits of business about Zoe, about what bills needed to be paid next, about who would take the cat to the vet.

It all made sense now.

Well. You had these times in a marriage, everyone knew that. You just waited them out, that was all. Griffin kissed Ellen's cheek lightly, then got out of bed to get his robe. It was Sunday. He'd make coffee and hash browns, eggs over easy. Zoe would sleep late, she always did, and Griffin and Ellen would sit at the kitchen table and read the Sunday paper together as usual. Maybe they'd find something on sale and go and buy it. He sat on the bed to put his slippers on.

"Where are you going?" Ellen asked sleepily.

He turned to look at her. "Downstairs."

She said nothing.

"To make breakfast."

"Stay here, okay?"

Sex? Griffin thought, and felt his penis leap up a little in anticipation.

He took off his robe and slippers and got back in bed. God, how long had it been? Ellen put her arms around him, her head beneath his chin, and sighed heavily. Oh. Not sex, then.

"You know something's going on, right?"

He stopped breathing.


He shifted his weight, checked, for some reason, the time. Ten after eight. "What do you mean?"

"Griffin, don't do this. We have to talk about it."

He said nothing, waited. She started to say something, then stopped.

"What," Griffin said.

"Oh, I don't know how to do this!" She sat up. "Look, I'm...Okay, I'll just say this: I'm in love with someone. And I...want a divorce. I'm sorry."

He lay back against his pillow, closed his eyes.


He didn't respond.

"I'm sure you're aware that I haven't been happy for a long time." Her voice was light, false. "And I don't have to remind you that — "

He opened his eyes. "Jesus, Ellen."

"It was never right between us, you know that."

"No, I don't know that."

"Right. I knew you'd make this difficult."

He laughed. "As opposed to what?"

"What do you mean?" Some color was rising in her face. Her voice shook.

"Difficult as opposed to what? This is supposed to be easy? You drop this bomb, and it's supposed to be easy?"

"Be quiet! Zoe will hear!"

"Your concern for our daughter really moves me. Let's get a divorce, but let's be quiet. Let's make it easy."

She would not look at him. Her mouth was a pale, straight line.

"Well, I won't make it easy for you, Ellen. Do what you have to do. But don't look to me to help you."

He got out of bed and went downstairs. He felt curiously light, emptied out. Numb, he supposed. Protected by a specific kind of anesthesia. Well, here's what: He'd make coffee. Just like always. Six cups, Bed and Breakfast blend. He'd make the same Sunday breakfast he always made. The cat, Slinky, came into the kitchen, meowing, and he fed her. One and a half packs, tuna flavor. He turned on the faucet, and then, for just a moment, gripped the edge of the sink.

Behind him, he heard Ellen come in and sit at the kitchen table. She watched him for a while as he made the coffee, as he got out the frying pan, the potato peeler. Then she said quietly, "I thought at first I could just have an affair."

An affair!

"I felt restless, crazy, really sad, and I thought...Oh, I don't know, I thought if I did that, maybe I'd feel better, maybe I'd feel something. But I got deeply involved with this person. I fell in love with him. I wanted to talk to you about it right away, tell you...well, tell you who it was and everything. But then I figured you knew anyway." She hesitated, then asked, "Did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Did you know?"

He came to the table, sat down opposite her. "I knew you were seeing someone, Ellen. Yes."

She looked down at her hands, rubbed at one thumb with the other. "I want you to know I was really careful, okay? We used — "

We. "What the hell difference does it make, Ellen? Can you remember the last time you had sex with me?"

"Well, that's what I mean, Griffin! It's been so bad between us for so long. We're and sister. And with him, I feel I've finally found something I've always wanted, but never knew I could have."

Griffin stopped listening. He watched Ellen's mouth moving, her hands pushing her hair back from her face. He looked at the top button of her nightgown, half opened, half closed. He saw the thrusting motions of another man, entering his wife.

He looked out the window. It had begun to snow; huge, quarter-sized flakes waltzed lazily downward. To catch a flake like that on your tongue would feel like receiving communion. Ellen had seen this, too, he was sure of it. But suddenly neither one could remark on it. Nor would either of them awaken Zoe to see it.

The last time he saw snow like this was on a winter day many years ago, when he and Ellen were students at the University of Illinois. He lived in a dorm; Ellen lived in a tiny, slanted-floor apartment. Her roommate, Alexandra, was a sullen girl with long, greasy red hair. She wore only black, wrote lines of obscure poetry in a ragged journal, rarely spoke except to read her poetry out loud, and believed that wearing deodorant was giving in to the system. "Why don't you get another roommate?" Griffin would ask, and Ellen would always shrug and say, "She pays the rent. I don't think I could find anyone else, anyway."

On that long-ago winter day, Griffin went to Ellen's apartment with a sprig of lilac for her. Alexandra opened the door. "Lilacs!" she'd said. "Where did you ever find lilacs?"

"At the florist's," Griffin had answered, stepping into the apartment, thinking, Where else would I get them?

Ellen had come into the room fresh out of the shower. "What have you got there?" she'd asked, adjusting the towel she had wrapped around her wet hair.

"Lilacs," he'd said proudly, handing them to her.

"Oh, my God. Now?"

He nodded, feeling suddenly foolish. He'd paid twelve dollars for this single sprig, which now lay wilting inside the cellophane.

"Well...thank you," Ellen had said, laughing. She'd put the sprig into a wine-bottle vase, set it on the kitchen table. "Lilacs in January!" she'd said, and it seemed to Griffin that she was more bewildered than charmed. A fortune teller he'd once visited on a dare from Ellen had told him, "You're not too good with the ladies. You do everything wrong."

Ellen's mouth was still moving; she was explaining, pleading. Of course she had slept with him, he thought. How could he have deluded himself so? How many times had the two of them done it? How many ways?

She was saying something about Zoe now, about how they needed to keep her routine as stable as possible. Griffin forced himself to pay attention. "She needs to stay in the same house, in the same school. I've thought about this a lot, Griffin. And since I'm the one who stays home with her, it only makes sense that you be the one to move out."

He felt his stomach tighten, his heart begin to race. The coffeemaker beeped, signaling its readiness, and Ellen got up and poured two mugs. She set one in front of Griffin, one in front of herself. Griffin watched the steam rise up and curl back on itself, then dissipate. He said quietly, "I'm not going anywhere."


"I said, I'm not going anywhere. I'm not moving."

She nodded. "I see. Well, I can't. I have to be here to take care of Zoe."

Griffin pictured his daughter, a redheaded tomboy who would grow up to be a redheaded beauty who would knock the stuffing out of any man who crossed her. "All right, you can stay, too," he told Ellen.

"Griffin. One of us has to go."

He picked up his mug, took a sip. "Well, let's see, now. It isn't going to be me. You try to figure out the rest, Ellen. And from now on, call me Frank. I don't want you to call me Griffin. That's what my friends call me."

He went outside to get the paper. A world of news, not one bit of it about her. Or them. When he came back inside, Ellen had gone. He picked up her full mug, dumped the coffee down the drain. Then he got out the potatoes and began to peel them.

Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Berg

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Say When 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love EB's books!! but this one hit me very close to where and what i am living. I wonder and wish I could ask EB how she came up with Griffin's point of view. I was moved by his emotions. So often we can not see or feel emotions from our husbands. And we wonder what is really going on in their heads. And more importantly, do they feel anything outside of a bed sheet?? Griffin had the chance to sleep with a great girl. but he knew that he loved only one and could be with only one. and i love his justifications for loving her with all of her quirks. Love is love. Sometimes it's hard to explain to the masses. So why try??? That's another book for EB. Thank you Elizabeth for putting into words something similar to what I am closely dealing with right now. Hope my life turns out as well as Griffin and Ellen's does in the end. Monica
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in under 24 hours-I couldn't put it down! The synopsis is that a long married couple's marriage is coming undone, only the husband doesn't realize it. When Ellen, the wife, tells her husband, Griffin that she is having an affair and wants a divorce-you can really feel his pain and his disbelief that this is happening. Ellen is clearly in the midst of a midlife crisis. I think many women will relate to the situation, if not to her way of dealing with it. The way that Griffin and Ellen deal with their marriage problems and their child, shows us all that there is much to be said for the comfort of a love well known, and the sanctity of family.
honeydew69862004 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Say When is about Griffin and Ellen who hit a rough patch in their marriage. Ellen has an affair and wants a divorce. It really brought back memories of my parents divorce but the ending is way different. I can identify with how Ellen is feeling in her marriage. A very Good story.
EvBishop on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Elizabeth Berg is the master of capturing the nuances of relationships and in this failing marriage she's merciless: you love/hate/root for/yell at both parts of the couple--maybe, especially, if you see a bit of yourself in each of them.
ForSix on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Every once in a while I need to read a novel that speaks to my soul. Sometimes one comes about happenstance (personally, I love those books); other times I know exactly where to find them. Elizabeth Berg is that kind of storyteller. A surprise visit to the library last Saturday brought me face to face with a section of Elizabeth Berg novels. After perusing the titles I picked one, open it and read the inner sleeve. I didn¿t even get through the first paragraph before promptly closing the book and headed to the check out.I know I¿m not alone when I say that I crave conflict in a story. I crave hurt, I crave grief and turmoil. As a reader, I think we all do. Elizabeth Berg¿s strength is her ability to describe human emotions in such a way that I can¿t help but feel them too. Say When is the first time I read a novel that dealt with adultery but from a man¿s point of view. Griffin was a regular guy, in love with his complicated wife, living the dream until the day the rug was pulled out from under him. I enjoyed reading this story. I liked Frank, I liked getting to know Ellen from his point of view, I liked his relationship with his daughter. Most importantly, I liked the way Ms. Berg developed Frank¿s character by taking away the most important thing to him. I enjoyed how Ms. Berg kept Ellen¿s motives a secret, that the novel was really about Griffith. I started the novel feeling sympathy towards him. By then end, I felt like a close companion and that whatever happened, he was a much stronger man, a more loving father because of it. This isn¿t one of Ms. Berg¿s strongest novels, the ending predictable. As always, the writing and emotional delivery was spot on but I think it lacked the soul of Open House or Dream When You Are Feeling Blue. It¿s not a must read, but I did enjoy taking this emotional ride with Griffith. I don¿t regret reading it, but it¿s not one I¿ll read again. My favorite part of the novel came during a conversation Griffin had with his coworker Donna. About compatibility, Donna says, ¿God above could come down and tell some people they were wildly incompatible with their spouses, and they¿d still want to be with them. It¿s like artist sacrificing so much for their art. For some people, their relationship is their art, they¿ll give up everything for it.¿I love that and that alone was worth reading the novel.
BinnieBee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed reading another of Berg's wonderful stories about relationships. I highly recommend this one.
DJLibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Griffin is a man who is hopelessly in love with his wife... he just has an odd way of showing this love mostly in how he controls their family life. However, now Ellen is wanting to find something to do with herself besides just keep house and take care of their daughter, Zoe, who is actually smarter than her age belies and definitely picks up on the rift between her parents. It was very hard to like either Griffin or Ellen and try to feel for their separate situations, Ellen's in wanting to "find herself" and Griffin's in wanting to maintain the life and love he thought he had. On the one hand, I can understand Ellen's desire to be more than a housewife, but I cannot condone the route she took in trying to become more. There were any number of other means she could have done to expand her horizons: 1) get a job, 2) take a class she would enjoy, perhaps an art class since she seemed to favor paintings, 3) take up a hobby. Perhaps it was because she didn't feel strong enough to truly express her thoughts to Griffin that she felt the need to just do something, and that might be the main reason I didn't like her. On the other hand, Griffin did not really help the situation in trying to control their life even with a gentle hand. No one likes to give up complete control of their lives to any person, and even if he is the breadwinner of the family, that does not mean his wife cannot have an opinion of her own. It's frustrating enough when one has to do the same old thing day after day, week after week, year after year, etc. but when they express a desire to make a small change, like say with a painting, why should the idea be shot down because the breadwinner doesn't like the painting? Both of them were frustrating as characters, and even by the end I didn't see much growth on either of their parts, which was disappointing to say the least. I did like being able to read from the male's perspective as a nice change. Amazingly enough, Berg has a writing style that flows very easily from cover to cover. She created very real, though frustrating, characters in a story that could happen in any city. I do not fault Berg's writing skills; the content of the story within this particular novel of hers was just disappointing and not my cup of tea. I don't think I would actively seek out another title by Berg, though I would recommend her to those who enjoy women's literature, the heavier side of chick-lit.
ImpudentAngel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I usually like Elizabeth Berg's books very much. This one - not so much. Couldn't get into the characters or the plot. Glad that I'm done with it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For women that want more substance and reality with their reading, Elizabeth Berg always delivers. In "Say When", though written from the man's point of view, she delivers a believable scenario of a couple breaking up. How it impacts their child, the wife's strangeness and affair with a younger man, and the pain that we go through for those we love. Not a sappy book, but with honest emotions.
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ReadsTooMuch9 More than 1 year ago
We all ultimately want to be seen by our partner for who we really are. Some people have the keen ability to look into another and see who they are. Although this may not be the central theme in Elizabeth Berg's work, it is significant none-the-less. Ellen and Griffin represent those couples that have hit a wall in their relationship. The growth has stopped and routines and regiments have set in. Ellen feels undervalued and underdeveloped causing her to embark on a love affair to feel more fulfilled. Griffin's patience serve as a reminder that some people, albeit a fictitious character in a novel, take their marriage vows seriously. This is a must read for those that are feeling disillusioned with the way in which people conduct their serious relationships. It was uplifting.
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