Ann Beattie’s The Burning House is a short story collection that came into my life as a battered paperback I picked up in a moment of sidewalk good fortune. Call it a gift from the universe that this restrained yet extraordinary collection should appear in my life during Short Story Month.
I’ve been wanting to read Ann Beattie for some time. I’ve seen her name clumped in with other minimalist writers of the era like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford so I’ve been curious to see what she does with sparse language and realism plots. Beattie is a regionalist as much as Carver, Cheever, and Munro. Her stories are New York and everything huddling around it, the families like those depicted in Cheever’s who are middle class, worrying over swimming pools, and have parents who once lived in the city before they found Connecticut’s space, or those adults still grasping at bohemia and refusing to move out to the suburbs. Much like how every Carver story feels like violence or the threat of it sits just below the surface, Beattie’s stories carry a more benign yet equally consistent feeling, but one that feels acutely female: longing.
In her collection The Burning House, many of the stories explore relationships, romantic and familial, through the viewpoint of a female protagonist. Whether the story features an ex-wife balancing a delicate new relationship with her ex-husband’s male lover, a woman nursing the loss of the affair with a married man who feels jealousy over her friend’s ability to be loved, or a second wife navigating her step-daughter’s anger towards her father, Beattie’s women seem to all desire something more. It is the unfair combination of that desire’s intensity and the agony of waiting that causes much of the tension in her stories.
In the aforementioned “Afloat,” the protagonist watches her husband read the letter his daughter has brought from his ex wife that serves as a re-introduction to the girl before she stays with him for the summer. It is a post-divorce tradition the second wife wonders at, one full of the ex-wife’s passive aggressive comments like the tiniest of relational missiles. It is also a reminder of the life the main character’s husband lived before her; his daughter Annie is a more sentient reminder.
Beattie doesn’t linger for long within the second wife’s musings and memories–of the various vacation plans and anecdotes about her best friends or her remembering of her first husband and the babies her body had never allowed them to have. Instead she moves to Annie’s own anger at the male character’s shortcomings, how he never writes a letter back to the first wife and how that reflects on his feelings towards that marriage–and subsequently, the offspring of that failed marriage.
Women writers writing women characters longing for something more is a common thread in fiction, from George Eliot to Kate Chopin to Zadie Smith. There is a particular set of boundaries women feel placed on their lives. History has taught us to be the submissive sex, to accept the life dealt to us. But what if we want more than the confines of the status quo, what is considered normal? I felt this throughout Beattie’s collection, that her characters were staring off into the distance and asking, is there more?
The story closes with a powerful image of the three characters floating in water, the second wife resting precariously between her husband and his daughter. She thinks about that freedom we all long for, “…that desire that can be more overwhelming than love–the desire, for one brief minute, simply to get off the earth.” Beattie’s characters are wives or mothers or exes or friends who want simply, however briefly, to escape from the mundane, to leave behind human failings, rejections, and disappointments–often caused by our loved ones. Beattie’s collection pinpoints what it means to be a woman: unique in our ability to create new life but terrifying for how our bodies bind us to the earth.
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