A generous gathering of 48 stories first published in the eponymous weekly often defined by Beattie’s trademark understatements, ellipses and—let’s admit it—occasionally clichéd situations and plots.
Not all her best stories (e.g., “Jacklighting,” “Windy Day at the Reservoir,” “Park City”) share this lineage. But this big volume includes numerous seminal and influential portrayals of sensitive, self-absorbed young urban professionals succumbing to passivity and indifference, and eventually growing up and into a fuller engagement with the larger world’s claims on their rudimentary attention spans. Fashionable angst and forced eccentricity sometimes blur focus and blunt force in stories that feel insubstantial—a woman’s resentment of her husband’s supposed infidelities in “Downhill”; a defrocked fashion model’s yearning to reconstruct her unhappy life in “Colorado”; and an unattractive woman’s history of failed relationships in “Wolf Dreams.” Yet when Beattie eludes the entrapments of quotidian cliché, she commands a crisp, understated prose style and a talent for manipulating viewpoints into new ways of observing done-to-death conflicts. In “Snakes’ Shoes,” the breakup of a storybook marriage is felt most keenly by a sorrowful, silent brother-in-law. “Fancy Flights” looks at broken relationships through several variously sympathetic eyes—including those of a family dog. Elsewhere, Beattie displays increasingly more complex understanding of the varieties of awakened regrets and aroused fears of the looming presences of age and enfeeblement. In “Janus,” a gift from a former lover stimulates a complex meditation on the enduring, shaping power of the past; and “The Burning House” flawlessly dramatizes the moral awakening of a shallow woman doomed to understand that her closest friends are virtual strangers to her.
Beattie (Walks with Men, 2010, etc.) sometimes stumbles, but her mordant and frequently comic depictions of ways in which we persevere, screw up and usually survive our own foolishness give her better stories genuine power, and make them well worth returning to.