The veteran short story master explores the peculiarities of summer life among well-off and often emotionally unwell Maine denizens.
Beattie (Mrs. Nixon, 2011, etc.) helped set the template for minimalist fiction in the 1980s, but she’s roamed stylistically since then, and these 15 lightly linked stories are as varied as the moods of their lead characters. A trio of stories centers on Jocelyn, a teenager sent to live with her aunt and uncle while her mother recovers from surgery for Lyme disease; her struggles in a writing class echo her need to develop a mature sense of her world’s complexity. Sometimes Beattie imagines that world as light and quirky, as in “Elvis Is Ahead of Us,” in which teens discover a room full of Elvis-bust lamps in an unoccupied house. Elsewhere, the milieu is darker and more absurd, a place where one man is killed after accidentally rousing a nest of yellow jackets and another is flung over a cliff by a storm during his wedding. What unifies these stories outside of their settings is Beattie’s nuanced understanding of relationships: at her best, in “The Stroke,” an aging husband and wife preparing for bed discuss their love-hate feelings toward their children, casually grooming each other while musing about “how lovely it would be to just grab the clump of them and cut them out.” Some pieces read like sketches with promising characters but little movement: a 77-year-old writer discusses poetry with an IRS agent, a doctor reminisces about her life in New York before moving north, an author interviews a local for a book about “people who have negative effects on other people’s lives.” A full novel on Jocelyn might be more fulfilling, but Beattie clearly enjoys wandering around the neighborhood.
An engaging collection of varied characters, if varying degrees of substance.