Review: A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie
Novelist Ann Beattie has turned her critical eye away from baby boomers and on to millennials in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, and her findings are no less provocative. But do they ring true? Did 9/11 so impact a generation that it left it hopeless and anchorless?
Beattie would have us believe so, although her study group is less than representative of an entire generation.
At Bailey Academy, New England boarding school for “really bright kids who’ve screwed up,” members of the Honor Society revel in the attention of their leader, the enigmatic teacher Pierre LaVerdere. He holds court over “LaVerdere’s Leading Lights,” engaging the students in witty banter with his challenging questions. He wavers between philosopher and blowhard, but the bright students at the center of this novel don’t notice the latter, instead eating up his proffered wisdom and wondering about his personal life in their private discussions.
Among this circle is seemingly normal Ben, who’s not really sure why he’s at the school in the first place. The “Leading Lights” kids are troubled—one girl is having an affair with a married man, one boy has an eating disorder and another is in despair over a dying mother. They’re intelligent, yes, but aside from the emotional immaturity of their acting out, they all talk like they’re at least two decades older than they are. They share their innermost thoughts as if in group therapy sessions, telling mostly all but keeping some secrets.
When 9/11 happens in their senior year, they watch it on TV. LaVerdere is not among them and he is missed. “He was the person you’d expect front and center, he was the one who could be counted on to provide some perspective, to involve everyone in discussion,” Ben thinks. In the wake of the attack “everyone at Bailey perfected staying out of other people’s way, leaving them with their own thoughts. Attempts at false cheer had become depressing.” The world was a place “where no one would care about minor breakage again.”
After the clique graduates not even their Bailey bonds can keep it whole. Ben is adrift. He eventually goes to Cornell. He works in “claustrophobic” New York City. He has bad relationships, including tumultuous hookups with a former female Bailey classmate, and few friends. He leaves the city. He grieves his meaningless, floundering life, but settles into it eventually. Then he discovers a few things about his old mentor LaVerdere and some mysteries of his own past are unveiled as well.
Ben is the most sympathetic of the characters only because he’s the one fully drawn. But even the drama of his revelations, while disturbing, fall flat. The ties to and the fallout from his Bailey days are supposedly ever present in Ben’s life, but not clear enough for the reader to feel and empathize with them. As with Beattie’s earlier work about boomers, broken homes and fractured families take a toll, and with her millennials, 9/11 only fuels the impermanence of life and the belief that “everybody leaves everybody.” The award-winning author, who lives part-time in Maine with her husband, artist Lincoln Perry, is said to have defined her generation with her acclaimed short stories, many of which were first published in the New Yorker, and her novels, including Love Always, Picturing Will and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Millennials, however, even the most privileged (spoiled even) and brightest ones, have a right to feel slighted by her damning definition of them.
Amy Canfield is a writer and editor who lives in South Portland.