Source: Review copy
Publication: 10th March 2020 from Headline Review
It’s 1952. The switchboard operators in Wooster, Ohio, love nothing more than to eavesdrop on their neighbours’ conversations, and gossip about what they learn. Vivian Dalton is no different (despite her teenage daughter’s disapproval), and always longs to hear something scandalous. But on the night of December 15th, she wishes she hadn’t. The secret that’s shared by a stranger on the line threatens to rip the rug of Vivian’s life from under her.
Vivian may be mortified, but she’s not going to take this lying down. She wants the truth, no matter how painful it may be. But one secret tends to lead to another . . .
This moving, heart-felt and ultimately uplifting novel brilliantly weaves together an irresistible portrayal of a town buzzing with scandal, and an unforgettable story of marriage, motherhood and the unbreakable ties of family.
The Operator is a pitch-perfect character driven portrait of life in 1950’s small town America – Wooster, Ohio to be precise. Loosely based on stories she heard from her grandmother, (and complete with original recipes) Gretchen Berg’s The Operator cleverly portrays the social structures and strata of a small community and the efforts that some people make to stay on top of what is, really, just a small pile.
The nearest I can come to it is a sort of Peyton Place, but without the melodrama. Vivien is an operator at the Bell Telephone company exchange. The middle one of three sisters, she is now married with a daughter of her own. She loves her job with the telephone company and enjoys cutting off the people who are rude and responding pleasantly to those whose manners are a cut above.
A child of the depression, Vivien went out to work as soon as she was able and married just as quickly, though there was no imperative other than getting out of her parent’s house. She’s not book smart and doesn’t understand the long words her teenage daughter sometimes uses, but she’s good at her job and takes pride in it.
Vivien’s life isn’t full of excitement so despite the rules, she will sometimes listen in on conversations – just to find out what’s going on in her small town as her own circle of friends isn’t really that extensive. It’s not meant to be harmful, just a diversion in the boredom of her job and her life. This is, after all, a town where everyone pretty much knows everyone else’s business. She enjoys the small thrill of power that knowledge gives her.
One day, though, as she’s listening in to a call between the town’s self –appointed queen of the socialites, Betty Miller and someone she doesn’t recognise, she hears a piece of gossip about her own family. Something she did not know. Something that takes the floor out from under her.
Though this piece of gossip underpins the narrative arc, The Operator is really more about the different lives of two women in 1950’s America and how they used the opportunities that were open to them. Betty Miller, rich, socialite, ambitious and well-educated looks down on Vivien Dalton with her grade school education, low level job and prison guard husband.
Betty works hard to stay top of the heap and makes sure she always has a loyal coterie of friends about her. Vivien doesn’t really have any close friends, only her sisters, and looks on Betty’s life as if she were from a different planet.
Yet neither woman is content with her existence. And when Vivien hears what Betty knows, the lives of these two women will both alter forever.
Verdict: The Operator is a well-written, relatively slow-paced novel with a narrative that moves between the 1930’s and the present day of the early 1950’s. It is a portrait of family relationships, class structures and how secrets and lies will fester and eventually come home to roost. I enjoyed this book for the way in which it took an ordinary woman and showed us how she uses a difficult and pivotal moment in her life to understand what is important to her and how to respond when things get tough.
Gretchen Berg grew up in the US Midwest and now lives in Oregon. She has always been curious about history and family dynamics, and has a personal family tree of over 16,000 people. Her family research started with her own grandmother’s little brown notebook full of details, and it was the story of her grandmother – herself a switchboard operator in Wooster, Ohio, in the 1950’s – that inspired this book and partly provides an authenticity to the narrative.