An ear for language of the highest order, profound compassion for characters, an eye for the smallest shifts in the cultural landscape, and a preternatural understanding of motivation and behavior -- Ann Beattie's renowned storytelling abilities, for which she won the 2000 PEN/Bernard Malamud Prize, are on dazzling display in The Doctor's House.
We open this novel to a woman's account of her brother's sexual appetites and his betrayals of his lovers, which he has a need to confess to his sister. Nina, a reclusive copy editor, should have better things to do than to track Andrew's escapades. Since her husband's tragic death, she has become solitary and defensive -- and as compulsive about her brother as he is about sex.
When the first movement ends, the melody is taken up by their mother. New shadows and new light fall on Nina's account as painful secrets of life in the house of their father, the doctor's house, emerge. In the dramatic third movement, the brother gives us his perspective, and as Beattie takes us into Andrew's mind, there is the suggestion that Nina is less innocent and less detached than she maintains.
Through subtle shifts, The Doctor's House chronicles the fictions three people fabricate in order to interpret, to justify, or simply to survive their lives. "Few novelists," said The Washington Post, "are more adept at creating fictional atmospheres that eerily simulate the texture of everyday life."
Beattie continues to prove herself one of our best contemporary writers of short stories, but she has rarely managed to attain the same level of achievement in her novels. Though her ability to make an ordinary situation completely fascinating is intermittently on display in her latest full-length effort, the contrived anglings of the plot ultimately sink this composite portrait of three family members linked by the traumatic events of their past. Siblings Nina and Andrew survived neglect and outright cruelty their mother was an alcoholic and their father was a sadist and a philanderer by banding together. Now Nina is a copy editor living in Cambridge, Mass., still grieving over the loss of her husband, who was killed in an accident. She has her hands full with the volatile, immature Andrew, who has been looking up women he knew in high school for a rather bizarre serial-sexual high school reunion. As much as she would like to be left alone, she is forced into the role of counselor to several of his conquests. The narration shifts briefly to Nina and Andrew's mother, who talks about her marriage to the tyrannical doctor and her difficulty connecting to the children, but mostly she indulges in "self-serving re-creations of her past." Andrew narrates the final section, offering his take on his family and the women he has been pursuing. What all three have in common is a hatred for the monster they once lived with. Unfortunately, the parallels of the siblings to the parents Nina marries a doctor and later becomes withdrawn and bitter, Andrew is sexually compulsive seem facile and, while the cumulative effect of their anecdotes is chilling, it's hard to feel much sympathy, since their gossip, self-pity and self-deception undermine the trauma. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 04, 2003
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Excerpt from The Doctor's House by Ann Beattie
from The Doctor's House
Late at night the fairy tiptoed to the window and waited for the ghost. The ghost rode in on the wind and tapped on the glass and made it shake in the window frame. The rattling glass was the ghost's music and its signal she should come out and fly.
The fairy had done this many times before so she was not afraid. Sometimes the ghost squeezed himself through the window and stayed with her in her bed but other times he let her know that they were going flying. She pushed the window up just the tiniest bit so that even if someone knew she was gone they would never guess she had left through the window. Then she held her breath so she could shrink enough to escape.
The ghost helped her exit by poking a ghost finger through the crack. The fairy walked the finger ledge and settled into the hollow between the ghost's neck and shoulder which formed a cradle to nestle in. He liked it best when she curled up because often he was sad and when he was he did not like it if you looked right at him.
Everything became quiet as they flew. They went up very very high where all the noise faded. They couldn't hear mothers and fathers fighting or dogs barking or even a telephone ring and the silence was beautiful.
If people saw the fairy they would have seen her pass by so fast that they would mistake her for something else such as a leaf swept up by the breeze in autumn.
Some time ago, my brother Andrew began looking up girls from high school. At first I didn't think much about it, because I didn't realize it was going to be girls, plural; I thought it was just going to be Josie Bower. That was the girl he mentioned: Josie, who had survived cancer, but missed much of fifth grade, and whom many of the boys considered a tomboy, and therefore one of their own, before she had the surgery that left her with a limp. I had some curiosity, myself, about how Josie was doing. When he called to tell me he'd found her in Connecticut, I was eager to hear about her. I didn't exactly get it back then; I thought it was nice that he wanted to find out how she was doing after twenty-five years.
But Josie, who taught history at a private school and who was the mother of twin girls, as well as twin kittens, proved to be only a jumping-off point to Alice Manzetti, who had been her best friend in high school. Alice had something of a reputation, though I have no idea whether it was deserved or not. In fact, no girl's reputation was "deserved," because the boys were admired for being aggressive and the girls were blamed if they didn't resist capture. In retrospect, I think that because Alice was dark-haired and a little exotic, she would have had her reputation no matter what she had or hadn't done. Our father called her "a looker." Mrs. Manzetti was her daughter's opposite: shy, self-deprecating, with no fashion sense whatever. Mother and daughter neutralized each other. Mrs. M -- as she was known -- came to every sports event because Alice was a cheerleader. Some of the meaner boys called Mrs. M "the Witch," but I found her dark, curly hair flecked with gray attractive, and I thought it was noble that in spite of her husband's consistent absence, she came to everything, shy as she was. I was also shy, but I tried to pretend otherwise. I chewed gum (better than cigarettes as a way to avoid talking) and grew long hair to hide behind. I hung out with the vaguely artsy crowd that disdained makeup. To this day, I don't know how to apply it. All our defenses seem so transparent years later -- it left me wondering whether Josie might actually have wanted sympathy, though she insisted her surgery never be spoken of, and whether Alice might not have been so outgoing, but just the flip side of her mother.