Ann Beattie's short story collection 'Onlookers' examines a Southern city in flux

Before Covid-19, there was no formula for social distancing, merely a concept of personal space in public places and safety guidelines like standing behind a painted line while waiting for a subway. The pandemic made us all more aware of what is too close and what feels too far away.

Distance — between family members, co-workers, personal lives, and public events or between a person and their own emotions — is an invisible but significant element in many of the tales in Ann Beattie’s new short story collection “Onlookers.”

Ann Beattie is the author of
Ann Beattie is the author of "Onlookers." (Courtesy the publisher; photo by Lincoln Perry)

Beattie, who has taught at Harvard College and the University of Connecticut, was the Edgar Allen Poe Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia from 2000 to 2013. The author of nine novels and eleven short story collections, her stories have been included in many collections, notably “The Best American Short Stories of the Century” and four O. Henry Award anthologies.

The six stories of “Onlookers” are set in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2021, a place between worlds where the landscape is changing by the day.

“Onlookers” begins a few years after the deadly 2017 Unite the Right march through Charlottesville and a few months before local statues of Robert E. Lee, Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea will be removed. Covid-19 still restricts daily activities, but vaccines have begun to re-open the world.

In fiction as well as real life, this particular year of the pandemic matters. For a novel set primarily in 2020, like Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence” or Elizabeth Strout’s “Lucy by the Sea,” Covid-19 is a defining narrative element. In “Onlookers,” the pandemic has shrunk to a more manageable condition. What looms larger is the fate of Charlottesville’s public statues.

The stories are loosely connected; a major character in one tale may appear as a minor character in another, but mostly because they’re all residents of the same city. While this creates a spirit of place, the overall collection lacks depth, which, unfortunately, the characters don’t provide.

Except for one story, “The Bubble,” about complications among the staff at an assisted-living facility, “Onlookers” highlights a swath of Charlottesville made up of mostly literary academics and upper-middle-class professionals. Beattie convincingly creates this milieu with assured strokes of dialogue, location-specific clothes, local stores and private clubs. The title fits this demographic; no one here is a demonstrator for either side of the statue removal question.

“Alice Ott” is narrated by Laticia, first as a teenager years ago and later as an adult in the present day. At different ages, Laticia muses about her Aunt Alice, an eccentric in their otherwise old-style Southern family. Intergenerational dynamics are amusingly, sardonically revealed in conversations around Alice’s dining room table. For example, when young Laticia is unsettled by a Diane Arbus print that hangs in her aunt’s home, Laticia’s mother sagely advises, “You’re going to see ghastly artwork in other people’s homes all your life. Just tune it out, darling.”

When Laticia returns to Charlottesville in 2021 to care for her dying mother, she finds the city much changed. She feels that since the Unite the Right rally, “the town had operated under a cloud of shame…instead of the cliché about Charlottesville being a liberal bubble, people had begun to judge it with the same disgust they felt on any city street when they’d stepped in gum.”

However, most characters seem impervious to the transformative events unfolding around them; they mostly discuss the statues’ controversy in logistical terms, never raising any philosophical or political points. For a set of characters whom Beattie has infused with a fondness for nonfiction by Evan Osnos and strong sentiments on the writings of Virginia Woolf and Alice Munro, it seems unlikely that they would be so muted on this topic. The characters’ apparent apathy makes many of the stories feel flat.

Some, like “Pegasus,” in which Ginny, a sometime MFA student spending the pandemic with her fiancé’s father in his expansive house while her fiancé is abroad, have a diffused quality, so weighed down with conversational anecdotes of extraneous people that it’s a challenge to form a bond with the characters in front of you.

When the action is more focused, like in the multi-faceted “Nearby,” Beattie’s writing creates a striking imprint. Disparate events slowly build around Rochelle, an English professor at UVA. Over the course of one night, she goes out of her way to help a cash-strapped student with car problems, tends to her husband who’s healing from knee replacement surgery, has a little contentious drama with a friend and witnesses a demonstration at the Lewis and Clark statue from her condo’s windows. There is something off-balance about each of these incidents, and Beattie employs an unhurried and assured pace as she cleverly ties the details together.

“Monica, Headed Home” is a narrative hung with many small heartbreaks. It combines increasingly unvarnished recollections of a marriage with real-time events in Charlottesville that Monica is either a part of or brushes against. Introduced in an earlier story (“In the Great Southern Tradition”), Monica here is center stage and is now struggling. As Beattie describes, “It was going to be one of those days when she was going to have to will herself to function.” Her ex-husband was a scoundrel romantically and financially, and yet, as Monica makes her way across town, she starts to reconsider her marriage and how she’d helped to keep their relationship afloat with an assortment of minor deceptions. She’d “lied to him in so many little ways — the little ones were the worst.”

It’s a sadly beautiful tale, with of-the-moment external events that variously complement and clash with Monica’s internal meditations. If only more stories had provided clearer portraits of other residents’ lives and of their city at that fraught and consequential moment. Many of the stories did contain suggestions that fuller accounts were there, just below the surface, but they remained out of reach.


Carol Iaciofano Aucoin Book Critic
Carol Iaciofano Aucoin has contributed book reviews, essays and poetry to publications including The ARTery, the Boston Globe and Calyx.



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