The John Cheever of her generation, Beattie (The State We’re In: Maine Stories, 2015, etc.) has long chronicled the emotional foibles of upper-middle-class WASPs with sharply chiseled wit; in these 13 new stories, travel or a visit of some sort is the common thread, mortality the common theme.
The settings are along the East Coast with an emphasis on favorite Beattie locales Key West and Maine. Her characters, even those who have fallen in status, are well-educated and of nominally liberal political persuasion. While elderly characters predominate, the middle-aged and younger face their own regrets. In “Anecdotes,” elderly, self-centered Lucia’s story of passion shocks her daughter Christine’s friend Anna into mitigating pain she and Christine may have caused a shared lover’s wife years earlier. In “Other People’s Birthdays,” 40-something Lawry visits her parents and sister Bett for Bett’s birthday and witnesses the burden her parents carry in managing the mentally ill Bett’s care. In two stories, young women travel to visit older men they admire—a former professor in the case of “The Indian Uprising”; in “The Cloud,” a beloved uncle—only to realize the men are privately confronting fatal illnesses and are beyond the women’s help. Another professor hosting former students fears he’s dying in “Company.” Eighty-year-old Gerald, attending a Manhattan Christmas party in “For the Best,” and wheelchair-bound Alva, attending a Key West Christmas party in “Lady Neptune,” both feel perplexed that life has passed them by. But the unnamed 80-year-old narrator of “The Gypsy Chooses the Whatever Card” performs a good deed for a younger woman and is rewarded with moments of unexpected excitement. In the charming “Hoodie in Xanadu,” an elderly Key West widow forms an unexpected partnership with her agoraphobic neighbor, who has transformed his living room into a secret Xanadu. The middle-aged former frat brothers in “The Debt,” perhaps the volume’s darkest story, confront how “debased” their lives have become during a trip to Key West that ends in tawdry violence.
Despite flickers of optimism, this is a somber collection pondering mortality, fate, and the unknowability of others.