Thirty-six stories--eight appearing in a book for the first time and a generous selection from her earlier collections--give us Ann Beattie at stunning mid-career.
Emotionally complex, edgy, and funny, the stories encompass a huge range of tone and feeling. The wife of a couple who have lost a child comforts her husband with an amazing act of tenderness. A man who's been shifting from place to place, always finding the same kind of people--sometimes the same people in various configurations--tries to locate himself in the universe. An intricate dance of adultery brings down a marriage. A housekeeper experiences a startling epiphany while looking into her freezer one hot summer night. The long, humorous roll of a couple's "four-night fight" finally explodes into happiness.
Beattie has often been called the chronicler of her generation, and these stories capture perfectly the moods and actions of our world since the seventies: people on the move, living in group houses, smoking too much dope; people settling down, splitting up, coming to terms.
Margaret Atwood said of a previous collection that "a new Beattie is almost like a fresh bulletin from the front: We snatch it up, eager to know what's happening out there on the edge of that shifting and dubious no-man's-land known as interpersonal relations." The new stories have the same power. A family secret is revealed in a strange and puzzling act that becomes understood only many years later. In an AIDS ward, certain questions take on special significance. A hostile eight-year-old and his father's live-in girlfriend move in fits and starts toward détente.
In prose by turns laserlike and lyrical, these memorable, evocative stories authentically recall the details and feelings of their time. But the truths revealed are--as in all fiction of the first rank--timeless.
Remarking in an author's note that the same first names keep popping up in her work, Beattie (My Life Starring Dara Falcon, 1997, etc.) writes that she "intended no linkage from story to story--though there are a few in-jokes, of course." In fact, her stories are the in-jokes of an era. Since they first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1970s, her early chronicles of aimless youth, ambivalent love and fractured families have lost none of their wistful appeal or satirical bite. Neither has their author, as the eight new stories published here prove. To Beattie fans, her themes will be familiar. If the new work has a certain emphasis, it's surrogate parenthood. In the hilarious "Cosmos," a schoolteacher resists marriage to a man she met through a personals ad and takes guilty pleasure in exaggerating the foibles of his hyperactive, destructive little son for the amusement of her Japanese pupils. In the title story, a woman spends a week at an off-season Utah ski resort with her half-sister Janet "more or less looking after Janet's boyfriend's daughter, Lyric (fourteen), who is in turn looking after Janet's child, my niece, Nell (three)." The narrator's efforts to take care of the two girls--thrown temporarily together, like their self-centered parents, more by bad luck than design--are convincing, touching and (as always in Beattie's short fiction) funny. Re-reading the older work, one wishes that the 36-story collection were more comprehensive (one misses such gems as "Fancy Flights" or "Friends"), but this is a small complaint about a generous, very welcome volume of stories from one of the most influential masters of the form.