For young Ben and his posse at Bailey Academy, most of the grown-ups in their lives are either dead, dying or dysfunctional. But despite the bleak subject matter of Ann Beattie’s latest novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ben’s adolescent angst and ensuing quarter-life crisis is riven with hope and humor.
The story begins when the bucolic bubble encompassing Ben’s posh New Hampshire boarding school is burst by news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, propelling the students further into the thrall of their Svengali-like teacher Pierre LaVerdere, whose role as their charismatic mentor and in loco parentis is solidified.
Beattie’s novel moves from the abrupt conclusion of Ben and his friends’ boarding school days straight into young adulthood, giving only a cursory mention of their college days. Wealthy and smart, Ben and company were admitted to the likes of Cornell and Stanford, but their elite pedigrees have not prepared them for the indignities of the early aughts. Struggling to hold a steady job and even harder to maintain a relationship, Ben pivots between his devotion to a sex-crazed narcissist and his obsession with an old boarding school crush.
When Ben escapes Manhattan and buys a house in the Hudson Valley’s idyllic Rhinebeck, he finds a kind of family in the warm embrace of his new neighbors, Steve, Ginny and their young daughter, Maude. Beattie’s belief in Ben’s inherent decency is most evident in these passages, as our brooding antihero discovers friendship, camaraderie and a sense of belonging. Alas, without spoiling the ending, LaVerdere arrives back on the scene, delivering a shocking revelation that brings Ben—and readers—into the heart of Beattie’s postmodernist Greek tragedy, where the luck of these self-absorbed scions of the so-called “1 percent” is not nearly as wonderful as one might think.
Beattie serves up an unflinchingly bleak—albeit sometimes laugh-out-loud humorous—serving of millennial malaise. It’s almost entirely character-driven, with plot far less important than dialogue, reflecting Beattie’s keen ear for not only what is said but also what is left unsaid, often with tragic consequences.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Ann Beattie for A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.