About the Author
Hometown:Maine and Key West, Florida
Date of Birth:September 8, 1947
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A., American University, 1969; M.A., University of Connecticut, 1970
Read an Excerpt
I was stretched out on a lounge by the pool at a hotel in Key West when I found out the news about Dara Falcon. A pink-faced, pink-kneed man had left The New York Times behind as he slipped into his flip-flops for the walk to the elevator. Before he'd gotten ten steps away, I'd pulled his newspaper out from under the mattress pad and started flipping through. I hadn't seen a newspaper since I left Connecticut four days earlier, and I wouldn't have bought one, but the temptation of an abandoned Times was too great. I read the beginning of several articles on page one, but didn't turn to the jump pages. I looked at the book review, but the book didn't sound interesting, even though the reviewer said it was. I was just about to tuck it back under the mattress and tilt my face toward the sun, which had come out from behind a very large cloud, when I turned through a few more pages and saw it: Dara Falcon, Actress and Playwright. No survivors were mentioned. There was a photograph from the early eighties, which is when she'd had her biggest success, starring opposite Viva in an Andy Warhol film, and later as Amanda Greenfield, on the soap Time of Desire. In the photograph, her hair was parted down the middle, and she was looking at the camera without any trace of a smile. She had on a turtleneck, and if I could have seen the rest of her, she would have been wearing her size-seven jeans and-had the photograph been taken a little earlier-the ruby-and-diamond ring Tom Van Sant had given her. It had been his mother's ring, and there had been a time when it bothered him very much that his mother had died so young, before he had any serious girlfriend. But then, what didn't make Tom Van Sant sad? His mother's death was one of the few things he hadn't orchestrated to make himself morose.
Dara Falcon had died of pancreatic cancer, according to her secretary. She hadn't written anything that had been published or, to my knowledge, performed, in fifteen years, and she had a secretary? Who could really say, I suppose: J. D. Salinger; Dara-towering piles of manuscripts might eventually materialize. But how had Dara managed to get not only an obit in the Times, but a photograph as well? I looked again at the photograph. This was the woman my former sister-in-law had irately described as being responsible for the end of my marriage. Before that, though, she'd gotten me to sell her my car for a dollar, and she'd let me wear Tom Van Sant's mother's ring while she wore my alpaca jacket, and then she'd given me a hundred dollars because the dry cleaner had ruined it, though I later found out they had given her one fifty.
"You blame me for bad luck?" she'd said, incredulously. She always made me question whether I was rational. And those times when she'd grant that I was, she'd pout because I wasn't a good sport. "Well, yes, what you say is rational, sweetheart, but can't you forgive me?" She spoke in italics. She had a way of being able to wither into a waif right in front of you, her eyes suddenly larger, the slight hunch of her shoulders reducing her instantly in size. In Tom Van Sant's presence she was often inches shorter and pounds lighter than she actually was.
After the Cafe Central days, when New York got too expensive and her career as a soap opera actress was too discouraging, she went into exile in Vermont, which was the preferred farthest edge of the world for the truly hip. She sent amusing photocopied Christmas letters (in fact, the only ones I have ever received were from Aunt Elizabeth and from her), in which she referred to herself in the third person and did an impressive job of satirizing Christmas letters, filling hers entirely with trivia. The last time I heard from her she was still the quintessential Dara, expressing her undying devotion, and cueing me that I should respond in kind, because she was gravely ill.
Above the Gulf of Mexico, a small boat pulled someone dangling from a blue-and-white parachute. Except for its bright color, the way it billowed and drifted reminded me of tropical insects that could settle so gently you'd never sense their presence until after the bite. My husband was off on a catamaran with his brother, who'd flown from a small town outside of Albany to spend a few days with us in Key West. At Christmas Jacob had found out that his wife was having an affair with their minister, so he was preoccupied and feeling sorry for himself. John thought that constant activity was the best way to distract Jacob. Panting and glazed with salt water and sweat, they would appear at periodic intervals and then rush off again. This time they had been gone for almost an hour.
A waitress in a short sarong, halter top, and high-top basketball sneakers asked if I would like anything from the bar. I ordered an iced coffee and thought about what I could do to distract myself from thinking about Dara-which really meant what I could do to distract myself from thinking about my life. A man I dated long before I met John (a man who ultimately betrayed me) had often listened in puzzled silence to my impassioned descriptions of Dara's behavior-I was even more worked up about it years ago-and then had said to me, "She sounds like my idea of hell. It makes you wonder why anyone would befriend a person when they could befriend a dog." He wasn't trying to be funny; my stories about Dara had made him doubt whether I had good sense and also inspired him to get an Irish setter.
You could ask a dozen people who knew her, and in all likelihood they would describe different Daras. The only common denominator might be that while they had first thought one thing about her, eventually they had come to think the opposite. This would not necessarily be anything negative; they might have thought her very outgoing and decided that actually she was quite a private person, or they might have thought she was a good listener and then decided that she was clever to ask leading questions and file away the answers-a writer at heart, wasn't that true? Usually men held the strongest opinions, because if men knew her for any time at all, they tended to find themselves in very deep, very fast. She was more cautious with women, and they with her. If you weren't equally pretty-though of a different type-she usually couldn't be engaged. Of course, you also had to be somebody, though I don't mean somebody in the eyes of the world: it would suffice if you were a highly recommended optometrist, or even if you could be relied on to help her. She once shared a house in Vermont with a woman who raised ladybugs. Either she raised the best ladybugs, or the biggest, or had the largest mail-order business-I can't remember. But with men or women, whatever you were-whatever you did-had to be easily paraphrasable and sound at once humorous and dramatic. If she couldn't present you in one sentence, she wasn't interested. My own sentence was: She met an actor at Cafe Central and sailed for England with him the next morning. Though she'd known me more intimately in other times, this would be the first thing she said after introducing me to someone new. No matter that the actor's name would have been unfamiliar to anyone who hadn't watched a sitcom that only lasted a dozen episodes. No description of the way this might have been a more interesting situation than it seemed (I was paid to pretend to his elderly aunt that I was his fianc?e). No qualifiers or explanations were ever offered at all, except that sometimes she would digress into saying that the nightlife at Cafe Central was the most fun she had ever had in New York, and sometimes she would throw in the information that Bruce Willis tended bar. She passed over the fact that she moved away with the ladybug lady (who had tried without success to become an actress, and became, instead, a sales clerk at Macy's, before poverty drove her to Vermont) when she could no longer afford her rent. She wanted to give the impression that we-but particularly she-had been at the right place at the right time, though she didn't ever say that most of the actors who hung around Cafe Central didn't think she was a very good writer, or that, as time went on, people no longer jumped up when she walked in to invite her to join their table. Someone had found out that no one at Long Wharf had ever heard of her, so of course they were not really considering presenting her newest play. One man she'd slept with said that she'd confided in him that she was drawn increasingly to women, and a woman who'd cut her hair in exchange for a few white wines the previous night told stories behind her back, saying that Dara had picked up the cut hair and wanted her to kiss it-that what at first seemed like a joke had become frightening when Dara repeatedly kissed the hair herself, down on her knees like an animal feeding. She had risen with a whiskery mouth and tears in her eyes, looking so forlorn, the person said . . . , so desirous that someone be involved in the oddly personal ritual with her. Dara would tell you that she had spent a dreamy afternoon-"dreamy" was one of her favorite words-dancing with Patsy Cline (meaning: to Patsy Cline tapes; Dara understood she had no power to resurrect the dead), or that for breakfast she had feasted on feathers (translation: health-food-store breakfast food that looked like large, ragged asterisks; who could say what strange substances we ingested back then in the name of good health?). I let her stay at my apartment for the two weeks I was on the QE2 and in London. She teased me by calling it my "flat" and by mock complaints that I had such a small "telly." It was necessary then, and always, to exaggerate the way someone lived so that they lived a major or a minor life. Certainly no one she would associate with could live an average life, so we were all either worse off or else really living amid opulence or, at the very least, situated in fascinatingly eclectic circumstances. I thought I had been to her New York apartment, but it turns out I had only visited a place she'd been house-sitting. At the time, though, I took careful note of the fur coat that she'd never worn, hung on a large golden hook on the back of the front door, and of a large telephone that looked like one square foot of the lighted dashboard of a superjet's cockpit. The small kitchen was painted with black lacquer, the dangling lightbulb surrounded by a large rice-paper globe, and the sleigh bed-an antique; the first sleigh bed I ever saw-doubled as a sofa, draped with worn Turkish kilims and satin pillows. The place was comfortable and eclectic, and so was Dara. I thought her apartment expressed her personality Looking back, I suppose it certainly did, though not in the way I thought.
Dara had many good qualities, lest we forget (another of her favorite phrases, said with imploding desperation, when she, herself, was eager to temper another person's negative opinion): She was attentive; she could be kind; she was sometimes sentimental and didn't mind if you saw that she was. She was also very pretty, and petite, and you could find yourself thinking that she needed taking care of, and that you should serve as her protector. Who didn't tell a few white lies back in those days, more as a way to bolster their self-confidence than as a way to deliberately misrepresent themselves? Who was proud of where and how they lived-who had (or even aspired to) the perfect apartment? And who didn't do odd things for money, whether it was stringing along with some man's plan to get money for a nonexistent wedding from his wealthy aunt in England, or marrying someone for a fee so they could get a green card (particularly popular with homosexuals), or working the night shift somewhere you hoped against hope none of your friends would ever show up? If New Orleans was the Big Easy, New York was the Absolutely Impossible, but that was not the criterion for changing your intentions about succeeding there. You just had to be inventive. You had to play things differently. You had to realize there were no insiders-at least, no one you were likely to meet-and that everyone was an immigrant: decide on a new name and plunge right in, which Dara had taken care of long before she moved to New York.
Dara Falcon was once Darcy Fisher. She either had or hadn't been a promising young actress. She either did or did not have a baby when she was sixteen. Gossip had it that Mrs. Fisher drank, and that Mr. Fisher wanted Darcy and her sister gone so he could try to rehabilitate his wife. Other people said that simply wasn't so, but that all was not perfect in the Fisher house, because Mr. Fisher had backhanded all of them: his wife; the girls. He died prematurely, golfing. His wife sold the house and moved into an apartment and the next year took up with a younger man-a waiter. Darcy hated the man and only shook off her deep depression when she got a scholarship to Radcliffe. Franny was accepted at Williams, but dropped out after one semester and went to live with her sister in Cambridge. They shared a small efficiency apartment on Mass. Avenue for a year, or a little more than a year, and then Franny left a note saying that she had met someone interesting, and that she and he were hitching to Nantucket. She was not heard from for years. A month or so into the search, unable to sleep and frantic with worry, Darcy was hospitalized. Her mother and Ron, the waiter, went to visit her, and apparently her mother became hysterical, screaming in front of the doctors and nurses that since Darcy couldn't alienate Franny from her effectively enough, then Darcy had seen to it that Franny disappeared. She insisted that Darcy knew where Franny was. She insisted there was no boyfriend, which was something she had also insisted upon with the police, though she refused to tell anyone why she was so sure of this. When she visited McLean Hospital, Darcy's mother was in the last trimester of her pregnancy, and it was the first time Darcy knew that she had married Ron, or that she was expecting a baby. Her mother was forty-one years old. "Why couldn't you have taken my baby, if you wanted another baby?" she told me she had asked her mother. Darcy's mother visited only once, and would not return phone calls. When Darcy was discharged, it was into the care of her aunt, who had steadfastly refused to discuss anything about the past with the doctors. Years later, when Dara was telling me the story, she said she resented the way her aunt had acted; she felt that too much of a premium was put on privacy in the family, and that that had been a good part of everyone's problem. True, she hadn't levelled with the doctors entirely herself, but she had been desperate to get out of the hospital; she felt convinced that she could somehow track down her missing sister; she had hoped that once-just once-an adult could be counted on to reveal painful truths about the family, to say to the doctors those things she found so difficult to express herself. As Dara told me these things, speaking forcefully but-I now see-vaguely, she pressed to her chest a picture she managed to let me know, without words, was her beloved sister, Franny. The young woman in the photograph was attractive, and she had an open face and sincere eyes. This picture was only of her face, in a tiny silver heart-shaped frame on Dara's night table. Or on the night table in the borrowed apartment. I only went there two or three times, but even in winter, and in spite of how little money she had, there were always fresh flowers. Looking back, I must admit that while I misunderstood other things, I was not wrong in assuming that the bouquets must truly have been Dara's. So: Dara had survived her childhood, and she had either had an early pregnancy or she hadn't, and she had gotten a scholarship to Radcliffe (or so she said), and then Franny had appeared on her doorstep, there had been quite a bit of smoking dope, and both she and Franny had had sex for money a few times. . . . Then Franny had disappeared, and Dara had been hospitalized. She was treated with antidepressants; she was discharged into her aunt's care in Bronxville but soon ran away, returning to Radcliffe and living with a girlfriend who offered her her sofa and who only turned against her when the girl's boyfriend said he had fallen in love with Dara, though ("Jesus! My bad luck!") it was nothing he'd ever said to Dara herself.
When I met her, she was phobic about Cambridge, afraid when she had nightmares that she was back there, slogging through the winter snow, high on grass or on prescription drugs, the songs of that period triggering real depression, the tastes of certain foods she'd eaten inextricable from the metallic taste in her mouth during the time she'd been hospitalized. "Promise I won't ever be back there," she would say to me-meaning all of it: on the snowy sidewalks; in the hospital; at Radcliffe; at the various grim apartments-and because it seemed very unlikely, indeed, I would promise, as if I had the power to ensure it. "One time when I disobeyed some stupid McLean rule, they cut off a bunch of my hair and stuffed it in my mouth," she told me. "They were the animals, not the patients." As she said it, she grabbed hold of both sides of her long, dark blond hair and pulled it lightly away from her face, allowing it to drift down, as if her hair were gently falling snow.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Ann Beattie's My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, a novel that explores the obsessive side of female friendship and traces the events that impel one woman out of the cocoon of her marriage and into independence, but also into a web of moral uncertainty and self-questioning.
1. Until meeting Dara, Jean has simply fallen into things rather than actively making choices in her life. Jean remembers her aunt telling her "over and over that my passivity would be a lifelong habit, and lifelong curse for everyone else" [p. 100]. Is Jean's passivity a fixed feature of her character, or is it the result of her circumstances? Does the novel imply that Jean's experience with Dara roused her from her habitual passivity, or not?
2. One of the first things we hear from Dara (regarding her relationship with Tom Van Sant) is that "it's really pathetic to be liked by an orphan, just because the person's so needy, and you happened to appear" [p. 60]. Considering that Jean is also an orphan--although Dara doesn't know this yet--are you surprised that Jean doesn't take this comment as a warning? Is the friendship that grows up between Dara and Jean a typical bond between young women in early adulthood? Jean worries that her response to Dara is quite adolescent: Is this so?
3. Why does Dara return to Dell? Is it an indication that she has failed in the competitive stakes of more sophisticated places? Is it necessary that Jean go elsewhere to make herself happier? Does the novel imply that there is something inherently limiting about small-town life?
4. The comical life story of Grace Aldridge, while seeming quite trivial at first, takes on a central importance in the novel. How does Beattie use Grace's pedestrian narrative, My Life, as a structural and thematic element? What does it mean to tell the story of one's own life? Why does Beattie call into question the truthfulness of what Grace, and Dara, tell others about themselves? Is Jean, too, an unreliable narrator as she tells her own story?
5. Liam tells Jean that the relationship between herself and Dara has an unexpressed sexual component. Is Dara in love with Jean, and vice versa? Is each woman merely using the other? Why doesn't Jean write back to Dara upon hearing that she is going to be treated for cancer?
6. What is the significance of the ring Jean wears? What does the ring represent for her? Is she right to return it to Tom?
7. Summarizing her rueful look at Bob's family, Jean says "They were all as much cases of arrested development as I was" [p. 178)]. What characteristics do the members of Bob's family share? Does Jean fit in well with them, despite her desire not to? How does Bob come across in the novel? Are you relieved or sorry when she leaves him? Is there anyone in the novel who isn't suffering from "arrested development"?
8. Discussing Grace Aldridge's memoir, Dara makes one of the novel's most intriguing statements: "Here we have the revelation that life is a game. Do we all feel that life is a game? Do we perhaps feel it, but also feel reluctant to say it, because life is supposed to be so serious?" [p. 103]. Is Dara being particularly honest and insightful at this moment? Does this explain her behavior?
9. Ann Beattie has commented on her attraction to stories in which "the seduction of the reader parallels the seduction of the characters." Is Dara meant to be seductive for the reader as well as for Jean?
10. John Updike has written that "Beattie's power and influence . . . arise from her seemingly resistless immersion in the stoic bewilderment of a generation without a cause." How would you relate this insight to My Life, Starring Dara Falcon? Why has Beattie included mention of political aspects of life in the late 1970s, like the activism against the Seabrook nuclear power plant? Is the time period an integral part of the story?
11. Do a character's physical surroundings and belongings shed any light on the meaning of "identity" in this novel? Do clothes, objects, and spaces express something important, or are they seen as temporary, random?
12. Dara plays the female lead in Ibsen's classic play A Doll's House, in which a wife slowly comes to reject her domestic life and her domineering husband. And even before Dara's performance, Jean realizes that "she had called to my attention--without words, merely by her existence--an alternative to being enfolded into the sameness and increasing numbness of family life" [p. 107]. How important a role does feminism play in the changes that Jean makes for herself?
13. The novel begins and ends with Jean speaking from Key West, some twenty years after the events she relates. How does her present life compare to the one she left behind? Has she changed? How does the beginning of the novel influence the reader's view of Dara?
14. Ann Beattie has said, "I don't begin anything, story or novel, or even a letter to my parents, knowing what the plot will be. Like fingers hovering over the Ouija board, I find that I linger longer over some characters than I'd have thought, because of a kind of electrical charge they possess; I find, time and time again, that what seemed a digression I decided to follow . . . resolves itself by becoming an important element of the plot I could never have anticipated." How does this description of Beattie's creative process relate to Jean's story, which threatens to be engulfed by the presence of Dara? Is it an apt description of the way peoples' lives take shape in reality?
15. In two of the genre's most classic examples--Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations--the drama of coming to self-knowledge and learning one's place in the world is heightened by the fact that the protagonist is an orphan. If you have read these novels, how would you compare Jean Warner to Jane and Pip as an analyst of her own life? How would you judge the choices she makes? Does Jean's naiveté give way to something like wisdom or maturity?