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Book Review

An Ear for Family Disputes, an Eye for Complex Relationships

PERFECT RECALL Short Stories by Ann Beattie; Scribner $25, 348 pages


If there's one thing this time of year proves, it's that family relations are tricky. This all-too-human paradox--that the people we love most are the very ones who drive us mad--is at the heart of Ann Beattie's newest book, "Perfect Recall." In this collection of longish short stories, the characters navigate dicey relations with kith and kin, as well as with the loved ones they've adopted as such, striving for some kind of resolution and finding little predictable comfort along the way.

"I felt like a little girl again, someone who barely knew what was going on--that was the truth; you could still be a grown-up and know less and less about what was going on . . . " suggests the adult narrator in the title story, giving voice to one of Beattie's strongest themes: Regardless of the physical maturity one may have reached, upon reentering the childhood environment, we all become like children again. Another character, en route to visiting her oddball in-laws, realizes what she's dealing with. "Everybody's family was funny," she thinks, laughing to herself about the idiosyncrasies of her husband's extended family, "except on the day you were driving toward them."

Beattie has had her ear tuned to the shifting squabbles of upper-middle-class families since the 1970s, when her career as a short-story writer took off illustriously while she was still in her 20s. Just as John Cheever brought the woes of an earlier generation--family disintegration taking place beneath the veneer of class, martinis and financial security--to the forefront of his readers' imaginations, Beattie has followed that tradition into the new century with a keen eye, a cutting sense of humor and wonderful depth, reflecting, among other things, how our definition of family has changed.

In "Perfect Recall," she updates the conventional model of family with stories that have nontraditional families at their core. There's "See the Pyramids," in which two runaway girls who have established themselves as successful models under assumed names forge a tenuous family unit with the bodyguard-like men who watch over them. "The Famous Poet, Amid Bougainvillea" is a tender, multilayered tale that focuses on the bond formed between two straight men, hired to serve as live-in helpers to a pair of famous gay artists, after both assistants suffer tragic health problems. "The Infamous Fall of Howell the Clown" tells of the key role played by a man adopted as a pseudo-father to three young children; the children gain a glimpse into who he really was only after his death. Family, in these stories, are the people who hang together when there's nothing to be gained in doing so, except maybe the blessed sense of belonging.

Although occasionally warmhearted, there's nothing cloying about Beattie's view of family. All the intrinsic complexities and frustrations are visible, side-by-side with the more Hallmark-like sentiments. One of the strongest stories, "The Women of This World," examines the drive for flawlessness within the family unit and its tendency to curtail life's potential. As the male characters recline at table, idly discussing intellectual pursuits, the women tend to the more practical realities of food, drink, children and safety. The men are blind to the vibrant life pulsating about them and search in vain, over a sumptuous meal, for a kind of idealized existence. "In a perfect world, all wines would be perfect," they tell each other. "Ditto marriages. All books brilliant (a toast was drunk). Superior music (again, glasses were raised) would be listened to keenly." By unmasking that which is too perfect to be attained, Beattie shows the messy, difficult and tricky heart that beats erratically within family structures.

Like the Beattie stories of old, these tales offer a sense of ambiguity: When each story ends, the reader is left stumped for a moment, piecing together what happened and how it all adds up. Those who approach Beattie's work with the attention she demands and a willingness to engage in equal measure their brains, intuitions and hearts will, like family members who stick with each other through tough times, be rewarded in some indefinable, but life-affirming, way.

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