Thursday, May 30, 2024

Gretchen Berg - The Operator

In a small town, everyone knows everyone else’s business . . .
Nobody knows the people of Wooster, Ohio, better than switchboard operator Vivian Dalton, and she’d be the first to tell you that. She calls it intuition. Her teenage daughter, Charlotte, calls it eavesdropping.
Vivian and the other women who work at Bell on East Liberty Street connect lines and lives. They aren’t supposed to listen in on conversations, but they do, and they all have opinions on what they hear—especially Vivian. She knows that Mrs. Butler’s ungrateful daughter, Maxine, still hasn’t thanked her mother for the quilt she made, and that Ginny Frazier turned down yet another invitation to go to the A&W with Clyde Walsh.
Then, one cold December night, Vivian listens in on a call between that snob Betty Miller and someone whose voice she can’t quite place and hears something shocking. Betty Miller’s mystery friend has news that, if true, will shatter Vivian’s tidy life in Wooster, humiliating her and making her the laughingstock of the town.
Vivian may be mortified, but she isn’t going to take this lying down. She’s going to get to the bottom of that rumor—get into it, get under it, poke around in the corners. Find every last bit. Vivian wants the truth, no matter how painful it may be.
But as Vivian is about to be reminded, in a small town like Wooster, one secret usually leads to another..

Comment: The blurb of this book made me very curious and I pictured an interesting story about a mystery investigation conducted by a woman who heard what she shouldn't, especially considering her work. However, the mystery wasn't as heavily developed as I imagined.

In this story we meet Vivian, whom we learn has always been a curious child, eager to know what everyone is gossiping about or saying without her around. Due to this, she learns to eavesdrop and once her father even advised that the way to do it well is to not get caught. Vivian took this to heart and she considers herself to be a great finder of secrets, which is helped when she starts working as an operator, placing calls for everyone around the city. Although she her co workers should not listen to people's private conversations, they still do it and that is how Vivian learns about a secret related to her! Now she has to find a way to know who told such a story to her enemy Betty Miller, and how did the person found out that secret... but once gossip spreads, the consequences are unstoppable... is there a way for Vivian to discover what she needs before her family's reputation is lost?

I will have to agree with the readers who reviewed this book and said the story doesn't quite get there. By this I mean that the potential was huge but it felt to me that the author was more interested in writing about Vivian and the secondary characters' personal issues and how living in a small town, and living through the rules of the 50s and society's expectations affected their behavior, rather than focus on the really interesting element, which is the investigation of who told the secret and why.

This is definitely more a study on people's behavior and how elements from the 50s affected people's lives, mostly women's, in a way that would always mean social disgrace. Vivian and her co workers have a job which turned out to be obsolete eventually, and the norms for people's racial interaction changed, as did women's rights. Of course these (and other) elements make for a proper historical setting, which explains so many of the characters' steps, but I think the author could have gone further with every detail to make this story even more captivating and rewarding.

Vivian is the main character and we learn very early on how much of a gossip she is, which is usually a trait in people that often is considered negative. I didn't like how much importance Vivian gave to this interest of hers, but she does change a little as the story advances and I started to care for her more as things evolved. It also helped that most things are told from her POV (not first person) and we can commiserate more with her feelings this way. Still, I thought that as soon as she learns about that big secret which affects her family, even more so in the 50s setting, something more fast paced would happen.

It is true that she has a mystery to investigate and she does what is possible in her circumstances, but I felt this wan't really the major goal of the story, and what she does learn doesn't seem to affect her daily life in the way it should. I can't explain it without spoilers, but let' say the big secret affected her position in society and what others would think of her, but at home this didn't seem to be such a big deal... I suppose part of me understands this, but then the overall effect is one of blandness and not the eagerness of knowing what would happen next...

At the same time we follow Vivian's issues, we are told about a few secondary characters and at first it seemed as if that was only fillers, so that we could see the reinforcement of how much damage gossip can cause, sometimes unfairly or without cause, to others. It turns out that two secondary sub plots - regarding Betty Miller's character, Vivian's "enemy", and a couple who run away after stealing money from Betty Miller's father's bank - are actually connected, and when we learn about the twist in this, I'll have to say some details were quite surprising. But, by then, the story was close to an end and the tone wasn't as remarkable as it could have been.

I liked the story enough to be interested in reading until the end, but if only some extra flavor had been given... the end is quite promising for Vivian and for who she will become after this ordeal, but I cannot say if I'll look for other books by the author on purpose.
Grade: 6/10


  1. Oh how sad; the premise did sound interesting. But it's true that it's all in the execution, no? Some authors can make the trite come alive, and others squander delicious premises.

    1. Yes, you've summarized my thoughts precisely! :D