The State We’re In: Maine Stories
- By Ann Beattie
- 206 pp.
- Reviewed by JR Scrafford
- November 2, 2015
A master of the genre once again shows how it’s done.
“And that’s where the story ends.” So, too, ends The State We’re In: Maine Stories, Ann Beattie’s latest collection of short stories, the genre that made her famous. Here are 15 tales where the author masterfully takes you on a trip that starts predictably, but then roller-coasters off into a land of surprising emotional turmoil.
“Adirondack Chairs” is a perfect example of a Beattie story that sticks with the reader, creating a sense of amusement long after the final page is turned. Living in New Hampshire, I have Adirondack chairs all over my property. Bright yellow ones adorn the base of our driveway, and we resolutely have happy hour there when it’s not freezing or snowing. Yes, they can be tough to sit in and get out of, but they’re an item of geographic pride.
Beattie understands this dichotomy when she writes that “those things ruined women’s stockings and made you spill your drink; you had to sit in them awkwardly, pretending that your casual moment was also comfortable. That you’d adapted easily to their too-deep seats and were having fun.” The characters in her story shockingly leave the chairs upside-down at the end of their vacation, thumbing their noses at the very symbol of a New England summer.
In “The Stroke,” Beattie perfectly captures the shorthand conversation of a husband and wife preparing for bed, discussing their kids and reliving long-ago slights without the anger or emotion of a younger marriage. Everything they need to discuss, they have talked about before. The title of the story refers to the strokes of a hairbrush the husband enthusiastically (but exhaustedly) provides every night to aid his wife’s aches and pains.
In “The Fledgling,” Beattie creates a nameless “she” as the sole actor in the story. A baby bird is drowning in the residue of a recycling tub. “She” wants to assist, but her own thoughts and well-known limitations distract her and create an unending stream of consciousness. The story is classic Beattie — descriptive, caring, sad, and hilarious.
The recurring character Jocelyn, a young girl who starts out this collection living with her aunt and uncle, ties several stories together. Perhaps the best story of the collection, “The Repurposed Barn” takes place at a sad, small-town auction that all three characters have agreed to go to escape the problems dominating their lives. Jocelyn has no power to control the adults in her life and is constantly confused by their actions. Yet during the course of this final story, she ponders the grownup decision she will have to confront, the unexpected result of her time with her aunt and uncle.
Jocelyn has, during the course of one afternoon, gone from a befuddled teenager to one of those adults she will never understand. It’s a meaningful ending to a somewhat silly afternoon where the chief items up for bid are Elvis busts. Beattie, once again, starts the story one way but turns it around, taking the reader by surprise.
Beattie’s collection is not limited to readers familiar with Maine. In fact, if you’re solely looking for a Yankee reminiscence, you’d be mistaken to relax with this book. Some stories may mention New England, but they could be set in many places. However, if you’re interested in well-written, universal tales that surprise and entice, pull up an Adirondack chair and dig in. Just don’t get up too quickly.
JR Scrafford is a senior review editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books.