REVIEW: The Operator by Gretchen Berg

In brief: Vivian is a switchboard operator in Wooster, Ohio in the 50s. She enjoys listening in on conversations until she hears something incredibly shocking about herself. How can she fix this and hold her head up high?

The good: The 1950s are brilliantly portrayed.

The not-so-good: Bit uneven and I had to concentrate to work out the big reveal.

Why I chose it: Looked like fun. Thank you to Hachette for the copy.

Year: 2020

Pages: 342

Publisher: Headline Review (Hachette)

Setting: USA

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

The Operator was an unusual read for me. Some parts of this historical story of small-town life in the 1950s were delightful and others parts…weren’t. Sometimes there was a lot of action to hold my interest and other times I found it difficult to keep track of who was who and how they were related to the town. I feel bad for saying this when the story is based on real life! The main idea for the plot is great, but perhaps is watered down in modern society where such things don’t really matter much. The other great secrets revealed don’t always feel like they have much of an effect on Vivian, the main character.

Vivian is one of the switchboard operators at Ohio Bell, the local telephone exchange. She delights in secretly listening in on conversations and knowing that bit more about the other people in Wooster. One night she connects a telephone call where a secret is spilled to the local (and self-appointed) queen bee of the town. That secret is about Vivian herself and rocks her to her very core. Suddenly, all she knew is quite possibly a lie. Vivian does her own investigation to find out the truth and then put things right. The story also wades into other things happening in the town, such a robbery at the local bank and how the perpetrators have their own links to the town. Vivian’s daughter, Charlotte, also deals with first love (or not) and a shocking event. Meanwhile, Queen Bee Betty, is out to get Vivian.

I think this story may have been better for me if it was labelled as about the people of Wooster, rather than Vivian and people she’s heard on the phone line. Vivian’s major problem in the book is out in the open quite quickly and is dealt with in the same fashion. There is some fallout and finding out who betrayed her, but in the meantime the narrative wanders off to discuss other things happening in the town. Vivian is an unusual character in that she can be both shallow and quite deep (such as when she writes poetry for the local newspaper – there isn’t much of an explanation of why). Sometimes she’s angling for the approval of the highest of Wooster society, sometimes she openly decides to forget the whole thing. I think her uncertainty in and shame about her lack of education could have been a stronger point early on to feel more empathy for her. Queen Bee Betty is also quite a caricature of the catty housewife, but she’s…odd. Her stress on certain words is annoying and she seems to be on the verge of hysteria a lot. Her motivation for targeting Vivian is also a bit strange, as they aren’t friends and Vivian is no threat socially. Possibly my favourite character was Charlotte, who is a typical teenager with an added smartness.

Berg’s writing is easy to read and the historical details are great. The pacing of The Operator is somewhat uneven, starting off slow and then picking up pace before falling away again. When who betrayed Vivian comes to light, it all seemed very rushed to the point where I had to hide in a quiet room to work out who was who and how they linked back to Wooster and its residents. I did like the additional recipes sprinkled throughout the book – although I would add chocolate back to the seven-layer bars.

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