Ann Beattie •
Chilly Scenes of Winter •
Ann Beattie, one of America’s most respected fiction writers, was almost unknown 40 years ago. That changed in a hurry with the 1976 publication of Chilly Scenes of Winter, her first novel. The plot is so simple, and the prose so uncluttered, that you might be fooled into believing you could write a book as good as this yourself.
Charles works at a safe but boring civil service job and pines for Laura, who has left him to return to her ex-husband. Everything Charles encounters triggers memories of Laura—her large feet, her sympathy for cut flowers, the dessert she made from chocolate and oranges, the flavors of love. Other women might as well not exist for him. “If only [Betty] were Laura he would love her madly, blindly, forever.”
Charles’s best friend, Sam, gets fired and moves in with him. They drink beer, watch football, mourn the state of the world, discuss women. The puppy Sam adopts from the pound turns out to be an insomniac. Charles drives by Laura’s house obsessively at night, imagining her baking bread. Car doors ice up. An old girlfriend resurfaces. Sam catches the flu.
We learn all there is to know about Charles, from his favorite food to his humiliation in dancing class as a child to the trick he plays with a Land O’ Lakes butter box. We see him burning his mouth on tuna casserole, peeing in the shower, rearranging his bedroom furniture, dealing with a mother on the far edge of sanity—and through these ordinary scenes Beattie captures the essence of loss and longing. While the topical references place us squarely in the ’70s (“A watched Dylan never plays”), the book’s emotional resonance is timeless and universal.