Etta Rae and Gilly, the parents of the bride, live in one of those enviably large Victorians perched on a cliff on the coast of Maine: an ideal spot for a summer wedding, or so you’d think. So when the somewhat nutty Etta Rae blindsides a friend by asking to borrow her yard for the celebration instead, the friend doesn’t see the need. She also doesn’t like the groom.
“If you don’t want to do this, be honest about it,” her husband, Jamie, advises in “The Little Hutchinsons,” a wacky, slightly dark comedy from Ann Beattie’s delicious new collection, “The State We’re In.” These loosely interlaced stories are set mostly in and around York, Maine, the kind of pretty place where visitors flock when the weather gets warm and part-time locals return year after year.
“She’ll understand,” Jamie adds. “She’ll have to. Or they won’t be our friends anymore, if that’s the way it turns out.”
Easy for him to say, but you have to wonder: How long has this seemingly sensible guy lived in small-town New England? The tendrils of social entanglement there are not so easy to disengage — which is a complication, yes, but sometimes a felicity, too.
Beattie, who splits her time between Maine and Key West, Fla. — a classic snowbird pairing — understands this entirely. It’s hard to duck anyone, really, in a community the size of York, with its year-round population of about 12,000. People inevitably jostle against each other in small towns, where there are very few degrees of separation.
But you can try. Didn’t the novelist May Sarton used to live in York, a visitor asks a writer named Clair in “Missed Calls”?
“She did,” replies Clair, who is unimpressed by fame, “and we went out of our way to avoid her. She was a very contentious person.”
Funny and consistently surprising, the stories of “The State We’re In” have the precision and softness of watercolor sketches, most of them masterfully executed, each contributing to a portrait of a place. Even “The Fledgling,” a miniature that’s a little more messily drawn — about a young bird in danger of drowning, the full-grown birds helpless to save it — has echoes in other stories. “Poor little dirty sad frightened bird! Poor distraught elders! They all feared the worst....”
Nature is bound up in these tales, and so is class, which flits through and sometimes stays a while. Jocelyn, the 17-year-old at the center of several of the stories, is spending the summer in York with her genial uncle Raleigh and rather dreadful aunt Bettina, quietly worried that while she’s away, her mother will lose their house.
Still, the young Yalie who teaches Jocelyn’s summer course seems to have sparked some writerly creativity in the girl, if only she manages not to stamp it out by grading so rigorously that her student sees only failure. What will become of Jocelyn when the season’s done? How big will she let herself dream?
Imbued with clear-eyed compassion, “The State We’re In” is Beattie’s first collection in a decade, and it’s filled with the sort of oddballs who thrive in the protective confines of small-town life — Duff Moulton, for example, who finally ditched his nickname, Chip, at age 82, when his father died. These stories are also rife with the secret rituals and intimacies of marriage, with all its warfare and devotion.
I used to live year-round in a small town not so different from York, and it pulls at my heart every time I go back. At the height of the season, when the roads and beaches clog with tourists and wealthy part-time locals, the full-time locals work crazy-long hours, making the money that will carry them through the gray lull of winter.
“You know what they say about summer people,” my photographer friend Barry, a year-rounder, likes to remind me. “Some are people, and some aren’t.”
Based on “The State We’re In,” let’s put Beattie in the people category, shall we? These stories are best savored in the summertime in a small New England town, somewhere close to crashing waves, away from the big-box sameness of life in cities and suburbs. If you can’t make it bodily to a place like that, just open the book. Beattie will take you there.
THE STATE WE’RE IN: Maine Stories
By Ann Beattie
Scribner, 224 pp., $25
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.