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Ann Beattie: Chilly Scenes of Winter

Beattie initially made her mark with stories but this was her first novel. Her stories had told the tales of people whose lives were not going well – marriages breaking down, dead-end jobs and limited prospects – and many people could readily identify with them. Some critics felt that this novel was merely a long short story and, while there is a certain justification for that view, it is an interesting account of 1970s characters who find it difficult to leave the 1960s and who cannot really grow up. Like other books she has written, it is a love story but not, of course, your classic romance. The story is about Charles, who is twenty-seven, and who is in love with Laura. Laura, however, is married but her marriage is not happy and Charles spends the novel waiting for Laura’s marriage to end so that he can be with her. This is no Waiting for Godot. Charles does spend a lot of time waiting for Laura, thinking about Laura and thinking about her orange soufflé but he also has a few other things in his life. His mother is an alcoholic and her irrational behaviour includes spending her life in the bath and wandering around naked. His best friend is Sam and he comes to live with Charles when he loses his job as a clothing salesman. He has a sister, Susan, who seems to be the only adult in the family, and the two of them struggle with their mother and stepfather. He even dates the plain Betty, primarily because she is Laura’s friend and can keep him updated on Laura’s activities and marriage.

Much of the novel is told in dialogue which leaves little room for authorial comment. Beattie wants her characters to speak for themselves. For Beattie and her characters, much of the concern is that the 1960s are dead. Charles, for example, is a Janis Joplin fan and he mourns her death and the death of other 1960s rock icons, such as Jim Morrison. For now he is stuck in the dull, grey, hopeless 1970s. But Beattie’s skill is her humour and though Charles and the other characters are miserable, their story is told with humour, if not affection.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by Doubleday