The 16th work of fiction by Beattie (Follies, 2005, etc.), which begins in 1980.
Jane, recent Harvard valedictorian and already a semi-celebrity in literary circles, leaves rural Vermont (and a boyfriend who’s in mid-metamorphosis from Ben the Juilliard-trained musician to a bedraggled mystic called Goodness) for New York, where she falls for a wealthy writer two decades older. Glib, commanding and unpredictable, Neil is a Svengali who promises to teach her the ways of the world. He tends to distill his wisdom into epigrams and truisms (“Don’t use hair conditioner. Electricity is sexy”). Jane finds him intoxicating, and they become lovers. One day, in a scene Beattie works ingenious variations on later, Jane arrives home to find a pretty middle-aged woman waiting on the stoop. Neil is married, it turns out; his wife has discovered the affair and is leaving him. Jane dismisses him, too, but before long she’s drawn back, a moth to the flamethrower. They marry, then spar with great verbal resourcefulness. Both have dry spells and successes (a screenwriting Oscar for Jane, books for Neil). But one day Neil leans across a café table, clutches Jane’s hand and announces that he’s going to disappear. Minutes later, he does—forever—and Jane is left holding the bag. Beattie hasn’t lost her touch. She skillfully lays bare the anomie and self-destructiveness—and also the vulnerability—of talented youth, and her evocation of early-’80s Manhattan is spot-on. But the book seems diffuse, and the name-dropping and hints at semi-autobiography can make it seem like a vanity project or an outtake.
Beattie’s talent remains formidable, but this is pretty thin.