Book review: The Operator by Gretchen Berg

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Of the many things we mythologise in society, and they are great and many because life very rarely matches our ideal, small towns sit very close to the top of the aspirational heap.

We see them as some perfect urban realisation of community, a place where you are known and everyone knows you, and the alienating remove of the big city is absent in favour of a web of connection that draws you in draws you close and sustains you selflessly through good times and bad.

While all those elements may be present in small towns across the world, The Operator by Gretchen Berg makes it clear that they come with a price — and in the case of early 1950s switchboard operator in Wooster, Ohio, that’s the capacity of all togetherness wounding, maybe fatally, every bit as much as it sustains.

In fact, after Vivian, who listens in on the conversations she connects in contravention of her employer’s edict to respect the privacy of callers, overhears a juicy piece of gossip that rips the heart out of her life, she comes to realise that the very things that have kept her in her hometown may be the very things that could destroy her.

“Could” being the operative word here.

Vivian, in all her flawed, oft-self-centred glory, is not going to take the terrible news lying down, even if society luminary Betty Miller, who lords it over the men and women in the town with ruthlessly salacious, judgemental zeal, is intent on exacting every last satisfying piece of mileage out of the eavesdropped revelation.

“Vivian was grateful for Vera’s hand-me-down wool coat (not the latest thing, either) that kept some, if not all, of her jiggling and bouncing at least a little under control. ‘Vivian, don’t wiggle around like a whore,’ her mother had snapped once, surprising Vivian with the harsh words. She usually just huffed and grumbled with discontent. Either way, Vivian tried to ignore her. Every one of those little criticisms left chips in Vivian’s self-esteem.” (P. 53)

So, despite gasping with the pain and horror of it all, Vivian determines that she will get to the bottom of it all and gain the upperhand in a situation where no one is really going to come out smiling.

What follows in The Operator with layer upon layer of intrigue, richly flawed humanity and a studied exploration of marriage, family and the power of small towns to be both nurse and inflictor of suffering, is a story which reveals just how many lies we tell ourselves in the pursuit of what we imagine the perfect life to be.

Betty Miller, with her swanky Christmas parties, immaculately-realised family and picture-perfect postcard life, is convinced she has an unassailable handle on what constitutes the optimally-executed life.

It helps that her daddy is the town’s banker and mayor and that, thus protected from the vicissitudes of society’s suffocatingly intense machinations, she can act with immunity or ill-effect.

Hers is a charmed existence that exists by luck and circumstance and an unyielding commitment to realising and enforcing her self- idealised life, and yet she is convinced it exists in perpetuity by virtue of her very rightness.

Gretchen Berg (image courtesy Hasty Book List)

The sense of surety in Vivivan Dalton’s life isn’t quite as rock solid.

While she has firm ideas on what constitutes a good and rewarding life which she enforces of scholarly daughter Charlotte and husband Eddie, who may not be as plain and unexciting as he seems, she is also a burbling mess of anxieties and acidic concerns, all too aware that what the small town of Wooster gives, it can take away in a red hot, gossip-laden moment.

And thus it does, with The Operator taking an enthusiastically honest but measured deep dive into the way the very best of hoped-for things (because who among us doesn’t want a charmed existence?) can often become the very worst of things, even despite our very best efforts.

A searing but nuanced looked at small town American life in the 1950s, with a particular focus on the effect the decade’s uncompromising dedication the doing the “right thing” had on housewives and marriage in particular, The Operator is a gloriously and deliciously flawed look at the way a laudable ideal soon becomes a broken-down chain around many peoples’ necks.

For all that gritty truthfulness, which is told with nuanced prose both luminously lovely and emotionally evocative,The Operator is also full of great humour and the kind of twists and turns that the switchboard operators of Wooster, Ohio would give their right arms for.

There is a lot going on in this town, including the theft of $250,000 by people with dark, vengeful secrets of their own, and Berg glories in it all, offering up gossip, infidelity, racism and a host of other vices in a pot so virulently and damagingly on the boil that you wonder how anyone manages to survive the heat.

“Every telephone call she would put through at Bell would now be listened to with extra squinting at the board, hoping to hear that unfamiliar voice again, to figure out who had called Betty Miller with that story. And every waking moment would be spent planning and plotting, and poring over the correspondence she had sent and received about Edward and his past. Even as they sat side by side in church that day, Vivian was only vaguely aware of her husband in body, but the facts and history of his life were marching across her kind as she mouthed words, just not the words to the hymns everyone else was singing. She [Vivian] was making plans.” (P. 179)

But Vivian Dalton does somehow survive it all in a story that has as much humour and hope as it has dark certainty about humanity’s less wonderful impulses, and half the fun of The Operator is watching how she goes about surviving the most cataclysmic moment in her life.

It’s not an easy trip for her, which is good because it makes for utterly engrossing reading, not least because Vivian is hardly the innocent wronged woman she likes to see herself as, as prone to doing the wrong thing as anyone around her.

And yet for all that, for all her flaws and mistakes, her misassumptions and self-interest, she is a likeable character precisely because Berg takes the time to construct her and tell her story in all its less-than-perfect glory.

She is, at heart, a fairly ordinary person, one who comes with good points and bad, like we all do, who reacts well at times and not so well at other times, and while she may have several mountain-sized chips on her shoulder, she is, at heart, someone who loves her husband and daughter, adores her town and wants life to work out something near the vision in her mind’s eye.

But The Operator doesn’t make it easy for her, and as we go deeper and deeper into her story, and that of the townspeople around her including Betty Miller and Maria Tomasetti (who, as an Italian-American has to cope with some distinctly bigotry-fuelled issues of her own), we come to realise that while small town life may be overbearingly full-on at times, especially in its mid-twentieth century incarnation, it can also be your saviour if you play it right, something Vivian learns in a book that is a thoroughly and joyously immersive read that will you glad you are looking in and not caught in the midst of its deliciously-intriguing world (perhaps, like many of us, you are, in which case, good luck!).

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