A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: A Novel, by Ann Beattie. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $25.00
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ann Beattie’s 21st book, is extremely smart: edgy, infectious, witty, and yet a bit brooding. Some readers will wonder if it is too smart; if, in style and tone, intelligence has conquered feeling in paralyzing ways. It certainly seems to have done so in several of the major characters. They are oddly desperate and oddly blocked.
We meet Ben and his classmates during their senior year at Bailey Academy, a co-ed New Hampshire boarding school designed to discover and promote the ambitions of a privileged generation — and/or its parents.
Beattie’s handling of how these classmates interact, especially how they speak to one another, is remarkable. So is the anonymous narrating voice, who seems, at times, like an invisible overseer of the teenagers’ potentialities and handicaps — like someone who may have graduated from Bailey a decade or so back and can guess what they’re going through.
Positioned somewhere in between this voice and those of the students is Pierre LaVerdere’s. This master teacher is a complex personality who challenges his students in ways that don’t always seem responsible. LaVerdere manages the school’s honor society, but honor means different things to different people.
LaVerdere is youthful and easily relates to his charges. Sometimes, he seems too close to them; sometimes, his closeness feels like an act — a test. He is a brilliant talker who knows how to take full advantage of his charm. But one suspects a hollowness within.
The students are going through the usual crises: Their nuclear families are breaking down through divorce and/or illness. Generational tensions are accelerating. In September of 2001, the fall of the Manhattan towers and part of the Pentagon introduces an unfathomable element into their lives.
Has something about dependable dreams and life patterns changed forever?
Beattie, to her credit, resists the temptation of laying it on too thick. She carefully times the occurrences, character, and intensity of her 9/11 references. They invade Ben’s consciousness — or the reader’s — in ways that compromise progress in Ben’s adult life. He and his Bailey cohort are having trouble betting on the future or even gauging the “really” in “What do I really want?”
To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: A Wonderful Stroke of Luck