Beattie’s seventh collection explores middle age and generational conflict in an edgy novella and nine stories of varying intensity and excellence.
The novella (“Flechette Follies”) depicts the fallout from a fender-bender involving middle-aged Charlottesville divorcée Nancy Gregerson and out-of-towner George Wissone. Beattie gradually fills us in on each character’s thwarted life: Nancy’s demanding job as an old-people’s home nurse and estrangement from her compulsive screw-up adult son, and George’s relationship-destroying employment in a covert government operation (“the rescue of rich Americans who got themselves in trouble” overseas). The novella form suits Beattie’s practice of defining characters through their relationships, habits and possessions—and when Nancy hires Wissone to find her missing son, the story branches out in several tense and revelatory directions. The briefer tales are decidedly mixed. Forced zaniness yields middling results in a male college student’s account of his employment by an eccentric professor with a mother who probably went to school with Auntie Mame (“Duchais”) and a solitary woman writer’s ditsy “Apology for a Journey Not Taken: How to Write a Story.” The latter figure appears variously, as an adult recalling “The Garden Game” of childhood visits to relatives that soothed the pain of her parents’ separation; as a Roman tourist, sublimating an unwanted family obligation into a fantasized romance (“Mostre”); and in a memorable tale (“The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation”) of its middle-aged narrator’s dealings with her elderly mother’s snappish temper and wandering mind (a beauty of a story, featuring a delicate blend of black-comic dialogue and restrained sentiment). Best is “That Last Odd Day in L.A.,” as lived by an aging man separated from loved ones by “ his sarcasm and his comic asides and his endless equivocating,” redeemed by his searching intelligence and generous imagination.
When Beattie is this good, she’s essential reading. When she isn’t, it’s the usual mixed bag.