The wounds on Ann Beattie's characters do not cry out to heaven; they speak levelly and lucidly. Her style is composed. The composure holds as a window may hold in a gale; just barely, while in the dead air across the room, a wine glass goes "ping!" for no apparent reason.
Something of a breeze seeps through the window in this new novel by the author of "Chilly Scenes of Winter," and it carries a suspicion of warmth. "Love Always" is clearly Beattie; as intelligent as ever about contemporary pain and oddness, but less composed and quite a bit funnier.
It is something of a hybrid, with the author moving in ways whose occasional awkwardness is more than made up for by a sense of freedom and discovery. If we occasionally feel something tentative and uncharted, in a writer who always seemed to know exactly where she was, we see mainly that Beattie's talents are her own map. Here they are on almost profligate display.
"Love Always" is set in the manicured part of Vermont that serves as a fashionable Arcadia to the strung-out nerves of intellectual New Yorkers and Bostonians. The protagonist is Lucy, who writes a sardonic advice column for a trendy magazine edited by her long-time lover. Her husband has left her and teaches at a nearby college.
The men in Beattie's novels, and particularly this one, are shadowy. They loom in and out like woolly mammoths, damaging and elusive and just possibly extinct. The women hold things together or fail to; they till a contaminated soil. The children are damaged flowers registering the contamination.
Lucy's relationships with the men ebb and flow, but the heart of the book is her encounter with Nicole, her 14-year-old niece who stars in a second-rate TV show. She has come out from Los Angeles for a visit, leaving behind the two people she depends on: Piggy, her agent, and her mother, Jane--Lucy's sister.
Jane is spacey, drifting, unappeased. As a child, their mother tells Lucy, she wanted balloons for the pleasure of letting them drift away. Nothing better defines Beattie's characters. They have come so far around the cycle of human evolution that they have lost its most important acquisition: the opposable thumb.
But while Nicole is in Vermont, Jane suddenly marries a young tennis player and is killed as they ride off to their honeymoon on his motorcycle. The death seems to accomplish nothing dramatic, yet it begins to work on both Nicole and Lucy, suggesting the beginning of an attachment deeper than either has known.
Lucy is a sensibility as floating and devoid of certainties as the other characters. Her advice column, for which she writes the questions as well as the answers, are absurdist comedy. She invents a wife whose husband insists on keeping his money under the pillow while making love; and a mother whose son refuses to take tuna fish sandwiches to school because a school mate regularly brings in an entire tuna.
Yet, as the book goes on, Beattie succeeds in making Lucy more and more of an anchor. She accepts what happens to her and, in accepting the orphaned Nicole, she defines something in herself: not certainty, but virtue.
Nicole is a sustained tour de force. Nobody has managed to portray so sharply the entertainment world's dehumanization of the child star, while retaining the child in her naivete, vulnerability and touching self-sufficiency.
Nicole's world is totally artificial, yet her total acceptance of it is absolutely real. She lives for publicity and minutes on camera. Instead of prayers, her mother soothes her at bedtime by pretending to interview her.
When a journalist asks her about motivation in her roles, she doesn't understand the question; to her, it is camera angles. She doesn't need friends, she tells someone; if she needs anything she could call on Piggy.
As a joke, suitable to her pseudo adult world, she takes a photograph of a male friend in the nude to send to his girlfriend. The local police catch them at it, and Lucy scolds her for showing so little sense. "You're 14 years old," she says. To which Nicole, secretly a sexual innocent, retorts: "Come on Lucy. That's not fair. You know nobody ever thinks about that."
It is stunning. A Belfast child would reply that way to anyone asking why a 14-year-old would stone the police or carry dynamite. It is the adults who set the terms for childhood, whether in Belfast or in Hollywood.
In addition to all this, though, Nicole manages to be very funny. So does a whole menagerie of other frail contemporaries. The book's most brilliant and disconcerting scene is the effort of Piggy, Nicole's agent, to cope with his feelings right after he has identified Jane's body in a hospital morgue. It is a semi-delirious dazzlement of inconsequentialities; real pain struggling with the reflexes of a man who lives juggling with other peoples' realities; a fire insurance salesman seeing his own house burn down.
Beattie's use of comedy is exuberant, sometimes uncontrolled, occasionally precious. A pair of village policemen make good but somewhat patronized buffoons. With Nicole and Piggy, the humor keeps a link with pain, but it is not so tight and enveloping a link as in the author's other books. It is a departure, and a promising one, I think.
Beattie has always filled her world entirely with her cool and fractured sensibility. The world stretched over it, skin-tight and glossy. For such a writer, growth doesn't mean growing bigger; it means that your world grows bigger and you no longer fill it. It can sag; it can get away from you. But it offers the kind of hope that a writer needs most.