Park City

Laura Green reviews 'Park City' by Ann Beattie

Published June 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| The young, mostly female protagonists of the 36 "new and selected" stories in "Park City," and their mostly unsuccessful romantic negotiations, will be familiar to readers of Ann Beattie's previous work; indeed, only eight of these stories are new. This collection doesn't make for uplifting reading. Couples repeatedly part and recombine; familiar or exotic locations -- Vermont, New York, Key West -- become interchangeable settings for betrayal; and breast cancer, accidents and (in the later stories) AIDS add physical to emotional loss. Individually, however, many of the stories offer brief, unlikely moments of connection that rescue them from cynicism.

In "Cosmos," for example, a schoolteacher responds sympathetically to her boyfriend's 8-year-old son's confession of wrongdoing: "'Tell me you'll fix it before I tell you' he says ... Such a large, all-encompassing request, but why not try? To have an automatic guarantee, no matter what, that the other person would do what you wanted ... After childhood, who would dare ask?" Jason's confession recommits the protagonist to her relationship even as she realizes that not only Jason, but also his father and she herself, have failed each other in different ways. In the title story, the protagonist attempts to protect her sister, her niece and the daughter of her sister's boyfriend from the threat of violence implicit in the sexual negotiations of a ski resort holiday. These characters are rewarded for their efforts with visions of beauty arising from chaos. The schoolteacher in "Cosmos" reflects on the long-ago death of her boyfriend's parents: "What could it have been like, to fall out of the sky over Anchorage, Alaska, into endless drift of snow? For a few seconds there must have been such color in the air: the engine sparking; detritus blown like confetti, far and wide; a free fall of bright winter clothes."

When the characters and situations are less fully imagined, the recurrent revelations of betrayal can seem tired. "Going Home with Uccello," for example, remains the trite summary its protagonist imagines: "This going-with-your-sometimes-girlfriend to beautiful Italia for a romantic rendezvous in the fall and flirting with whoever got your attention in a shop that sold reproductions of the old masters." At her best, however, Beattie surrounds her moments of heightened perception with unexpected details that compel our sympathy and belief. The brief, humorous "The Four-Night Fight," for example, evokes the arbitrary suddenness with which a relationship can descend into conflict: "In the seconds preceding the fight, she had been perfectly happy, scooping the center out of a cantaloupe. Henry had become diabetic, so they no longer had cookies for dessert, only fruit. She kept a package of Chips Ahoy hidden behind boxes of Tide in the laundry room, but she'd lost her taste for sweets, suddenly."

Beattie's fictional landscape is often a bleak one. But the stories are worth reading not only for their lacerating evocations of baby-boomer anomie, but also for the moments of revelation she occasionally, but ungrudgingly, offers.

By Laura Green

Laura Green is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.

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