It is 1980 and Jane, who has just graduated head of her Harvard class, is given the opportunity to meet with a wealthy writer (twenty plus years older than she) for career advice. After the two hit it off, Jane leaves her boyfriend in Vermont and moves to New York to pursue a relationship with Neil. He proposes to teach her all the ins and out of behavior and the nuances of men, about which she admittedly knows very little.
I know of Ann Beattie from the numerous short story collections that I have read that have featured her work, though I can’t think of a particular story of hers. When I saw her novella, I picked it up, thinking to see what a short story writer could do if given a little more space.
Walks With Men is an easy novella to get into. The writing is engaging, and in some ways the story is really familiar given that readers probably think they already know where things are going with such a young woman becoming involved with a man a few decades her senior. How can manipulation and heartbreak not be involved? The story both follows the expected and unexpected about their relationship, and the relationships that Jane has with several of the men in her life, from her peace loving ex-boyfriend, to her strange downstairs neighbor and aging stepfather.
Beattie is a talented writer, and while there was lots of clever imagery and astute life observations, there was also a lack of heart driving the reading of this tale. Jane does indeed learn from Neil (albeit probably not what either of them intended), but is also both extremely isolated and an amazingly selfish person (both of them were actually), with little insight into her own actions even as she tells this story from the distance of years. I couldn’t really get a sense of what her motivations were, and without a strong center this book just drifts off even as Jane does start making a few feeble efforts to define herself. I mostly finished this one just because it was so short, but had it been a longer work, detached characters, aimlessness, lack of a strong plot, and my own lack of investment probably would have driven me away from this one before I reached the end.