Sunday, June 16, 2013
Love Always (Ann Beattie)
Read: 6 June to 10 June 2013
3 / 5 stars
Love Always did a lot of things well but it did a lot of things that annoyed me, too. And then sometimes it annoyed me because it did certain things too well, like perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the 1980s. I bloody abhor the '80s, from its self-righteous excess to its synthesized music (which, blessedly, stayed far away from this novel) to its regrettable fashion choices to all of the other ways it was a reaction against the decade that preceded it, as is the nature of generational shifts, I suppose. But is it natural to feel such animosity toward the decade in which one was born but did not come of age? I've always felt that I was born way too late so I think the sense of having missed the things I most wanted to see feeds into the same grass-is-always-greener, contempt-breeding familiarity that I harbor toward my blandly homogenous adopted hometown: Perhaps being born in Wisconsin of the '80s but growing up in the Jersey of the '90s (while feeling like I should have been a transient child of the '60s) further warped the perspective of an individual who was probably already destined for some prodigious weirdness.
Anyway. I rescued this novel from the local library's sea of used books solely because it's set in Vermont. I had no idea that it was about a decade I have no desire to revisit (in hindsight, the cover's time-capulsey, stylized cover art should have been a clue), but I also didn't expect journalists and writers and magazine employees to be the vehicles moving the story along, which was a much more pleasant surprise. And I certainly wasn't familiar with Ann Beattie, who I now know to be a celebrated short-story writer. Having read one of her novels leads me to believe that I'd like her shorter works better, as her writing in novel form seemed a little too meandering and a little too bogged down by details, which I assume is an easy trap to fall into while looking for a way to beef up a text that would have been just fine at half the length.
This novel did feel more padded than fleshed-out; similarly, the myriad points of view offered by the voices comprising this yuppie Greek choir felt like several interconnected short stories with some of the connections being more intimate, more realized and more successfully rendered and resolved than others. The problem wasn't the dimensional, believable characters, nor was it the way that the overall weaving together of many stories felt like a bunch of short stories coalescing into one bigger picture. This deceptively carefree, quickly moving book even had a number of messages worth sending -- they just got lost in the frivolity of the times. Part of me feels that may have been a deliberate move on the writer's part, an attempt to convey that lives still shatter even in the most ebullient of eras, but it just didn't feel as well-executed as it could have been with just a little more restraint.
The characters themselves were, in fact, fully realized, with the least likable among them being at least sympathetic in their own self-pitying, desperately self-actualizing ways. An example: Maureen, the second-place-trophy wife of Hildon, one of the main characters and the founder of the magazine that ties so many characters together, is an odious little shrew serving only her own interests but the novel begins with her perspective (we see how she's planned a themed summer bash with meticulous dedication, an attentiveness that she feels her husband's employees do not deserve), which sets a tone that's immediately reversed as more characters are offered their chances at more flattering second impressions. Through her, we're offered a superficial introduction to many of the POV characters; she feels above them and we, too, feel a sense of sanctimonious superiority -- until the next chapter, when Maureen's self-declared arch nemesis (and, admittedly, nearly pitch-perfect foil), Lucy, Hildon's closest friend and presumed lover -- and the closest thing to a protagonist this novel has -- lets us take a peek into her head. Lucy is nursing a long-suffering sense of dejection over the lover who deserted her five years ago, more from a lack of closure than any real attachment to a guy we find out to be a pretty self-obsessed character in his own right, while trying to offer her teenage soap-opera star niece, Nicole, some of the normalcy, adult guidance and support she's not getting from her own mother, Lucy's sister Jane.
What ensues is a decidedly lighthearted frolic through some serious (and, eventually, unexpectedly tragic but enlightening) terrain, which, to me, sums up the '80s more flatteringly than I ever could. For all the issues I have with the decade of my origin, I get that it needed to be life-affirming through its desperate capriciousness, that the Cold War and rise of AIDS were only two of the ominous storm clouds hanging so heavily that the end of the world must have felt like a constant threat, a perpetual reminder that death is always just minutes away. One of the biggest successes of this book is that it emulates that need to celebrate every time a ray of light pokes through, however fleetingly, because there are no guarantees the sun will come out again. Every joyous moment existed between successfully dodging one bullet and hoping that luck will repeat itself when the next one comes, and Beattie is frightfully adept at conveying that frantic version of what it was like for anyone alive and kicking in the '80s to la la la la live for today.
The prevailing message I picked up from this is twofold: No one person is any one thing all the time. We are all as multifaceted as the story within this novel, with different voices jockeying for prominence and different circumstances necessitating any array of reactions. Knowing this, it is imperative to realize that we have no business assuming that we can ever truly know anyone because we are never privy to the day-to-day thoughts that propel a person down one path instead of the many others they could take to arrive at the end of the day, assuming they get there at all.