Reading the 48 short stories by Ann Beattie collected in The New Yorker Stories made me think of looking at Vermeers. Seeing paintings like The Love Letter or The Girl With the Wine Glass, we register first the quotidian domesticity of the scene and the beautifully polished technique with which the artist has rendered it. It is only as our gaze rests on the picture and enters into it that we begin to see the troubling ambiguity in a girl's expression, the smirk on a maid's face, the tiny suggestion of a gesture we cannot quite interpret and those dark, obscure, mysterious spaces that make the painting's glorious light glow the way it does.
Beattie's realm, like Vermeer's, has always been the domestic: the relationships among lovers and spouses, parents and children, siblings and in-laws. Just as the Dutch painter captured the telling details of prosperous 17th century households, Beattie, in these stories, focuses sharply on the last four decades of a particular slice of American life.
She has often been called a minimalist, and certainly her fiction has a surface of cool detachment, a well-honed sense of irony and plots built to pivot on surprise. But within that streamlined structure, the stories are also resonant with emotion and rich with deftly chosen details.
Published in the New Yorker between 1974 and 2006, the stories illustrate both the development of Beattie's style and the shifts and cycles in the lives of her characters, many of whom are educated, artistic in some way, and self-aware — or at least they think they are.
The stories also reflect the passage of Beattie's life (she's 63), with many of the early ones populated by graduate students wrangling with interlocking daisy chains of love affairs, or young marrieds coping (usually not well) with the demands of parenthood and fidelity.
Later, the stories chronicle second marriages, or third ones, or more, and the ever more complex web of connections that includes stepchildren and old friends and the new spouses of exes and a regiment of formidable mothers-in-law. And in the stories of the last decade, many of her characters deal with aging parents, like the lonely woman in Find and Replace who visits her recently widowed mother in Florida and is floored to find her involved with a new love, or the narrator of The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation, whose mother's dementia turns the daughter's world upside down.
Although Beattie sets these stories in the same well-defined territory, they don't become repetitious, in part because she paints characters and their surroundings with such exacting vividness. Arranged in order of publication, the stories serve as a kind of history of culture high and low, with characters in the '70s making fateful calls from pay phones and talking to their plants and referring to Fellini movies; in the late '80s using "parenting" as a verb and putting faux finishes on their baseboards; in the '90s selling real estate and having a family power struggle over a bottle of Opus One; and, in the recent stories, discovering that their kids are having same-sex commitment ceremonies and their parents are learning to e-mail.
The stories are fresh, too, because Beattie is so deft at setting us up to expect one thing and then rattling that expectation. Her control of tone is extraordinary; take, for example, The Women of This World, about Dale, a woman giving a dinner party for her husband's ex-stepfather and his much younger girlfriend (a typical '90s Beattie guest list).
It begins as mordant comedy about the foibles we tolerate from friends and family: "(S)he indulged the vegetarians in their restrictions, knew better than to prepare veal for anyone, unless she was sure it wouldn't result in a tirade. … Dale's mind was full of people's preferences and quirks, their mystical beliefs and food taboos, their ways of demonstrating their independence and their dependency at table. The little tests: would there happen to be sea salt? Was there a way to adjust the pepper grinder to grind a little more coarsely?" That exasperated familiarity makes the story's sudden turn to violence and revelation all the more effective.
Many of these stories have another Beattie hallmark: a character (Dale is one of them) who is something of an outsider and observer, a stand-in for both author and reader because she (or he) seems more perceptive than other characters, wiser and a little cynical. Just when that character seems to have things figured out, she gets the old but fine little Persian rug pulled out from under her, and so do we. As one of those characters says in Vermont, when her lover is dreading a visit by her ex-husband, "He thought David was coming to his house to win me away. After he reads more literature he'll realize that is too easy. There will have to be complexities."
A couple of pages later, at story's end, she thinks, "That was easy." But not the way she expected.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/critics.