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Affection for Charlottesville, Va. — its independent grocery stores and strip malls, its spring flowers, its storied hotels, coffee shops and neighborhoods — abounds in Ann Beattie's new collection.

Some of the six stories (such as "Pegasus") are set in the city's elegant older houses; others ("Nearby") include newer buildings with access codes. In "Alice Ott," the titular character — "something of an embarrassment to the family," according to narrator Leticia — inherits the home of a male friend. Its oft-cited address suggests — as do other works in this collection — that real estate holds people in place, even as those places change. "[I]nheriting a house had finally given [Alice] some power," Beattie writes.

Power and property are core concerns for Beattie's characters, who allude to the removal of Confederate statues and updating of place names. In "Alice Ott," Leticia states it plainly: "Charlottesville was a changed town when I got back. The entire nation knew what had happened at Lee Park. It was hard to think of it by any other name."

Having offered this detached report, Leticia proceeds to visit Alice at a nursing home, where they fall into a politically charged argument. Still, later, Leticia wonders if she might have been on a "high horse." Her ambivalence suggests she is simply overwhelmed — her mother is dying of cancer. Perhaps the most bittersweet of many superb sentences in "Onlookers" is Leticia's sorrowful recollection of her mother: "When she'd bought me beautiful shoes, I'd developed blisters."

Some of the bright sparks of hilarity and candor in this collection come in the form of maternal advice. A reflection from Ginny in "Pegasus": "Maybe her mother had been right, and happiness wasn't likely to result from meeting someone in a hotel lobby and going off to have a drink with them." Here is Leticia's mother in "Alice Ott": "'You're going to see ghastly artwork in other people's homes all your life. Just tune it out, darling.'"

Monica — of "In the Great Southern Tradition," "Monica, Headed Home" and, briefly, "The Bubble" — thinks incessantly of her late mother. Grappling with their losses (or fearing them as they approach), Monica and Leticia are the standouts in this collection. They are sophisticated, idiosyncratic and witty; they are also humbled by grief, perhaps slowed by the contemplation it has foisted upon them.

The stories are linked by place and character, though Beattie doesn't overemphasize the connections. The overall feeling of "Onlookers" is of being deeply immersed in a small town. Against the backdrop of local upheaval and global crises, Beattie focuses on the room in which a woman addresses her dying mother or a forlorn fiancée dances with her future-father-in-law.

Plans rarely work out as intended. Monica's nephew, Jonah, thinks of his mother's artistic aspirations, and how her paintbrushes "had been used for dusting narrow spaces." With melancholy wit and stunning details, Beattie follows the paths of many who share similar disappointments, and who might encounter one another on Charlottesville's downtown mall.

Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.


By: Ann Beattie.

Publisher: Scribner, 277 pages, $27.