“The Accomplished Guest: Stories” (Scribner) by Ann Beattie

A woman drinks iced tea on the veranda with her weary parents. A husband and wife select attire for an out-of-town wedding. An uncle drives his niece to dinner. In each scenario, it seems as though things will progress normally until a heart attack, a punch to the jaw, a robbery or a sudden pouncing upon by an ex hiding behind the Christmas tree occurs. In Ann Beattie’s newest collection of short stories, “The Accomplished Guest,” the author transforms even the most familiar situations into jarring episodes.

From Manhattan apartments to Key West porches, characters visit, celebrate, mourn and reunite along the East Coast. Meanwhile, Beattie crawls so deeply into the psyche of her players that the simple act of arranging flowers proves hilarious, insightful, deep. While some writers forget to endear us to their flawed protagonists, Beattie dishes out oddly mannered ladies and gentlemen for whom we root instantly; and with choice words, she expertly lures us into loathing any foes. In one story, we learn Ned is the “less nice” of twin grandsons, and that is all we need in order to adequately despise him.

Brimming with details of the very best kind (like a lounging dog’s ear resembling a given-up origami project), these tales deliver a precise look into what happens when, in the midst of aging and thorny relationships, guests arrive.

Beattie mixes biting humor, refreshing prose and unexpected detours to create a gratifying, relevant read. Keep this one around, as you can easily revel in these pieces — filled with several pairs of expensive boots, a couple of greyhounds and at least one woman selling Avon in a coffee shop — more than once.

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CHRISTINA LEDBETTER
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