Falling in Place by Ann Beattie

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Falling in Place Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Greek myth, Icarus’s exuberantly beating wings hurl him toward the sun, where they melt, and he plunges to his death in the sea. The Icarian figure adorning the cover of Falling in Place suggests the downside of youthful aspiration; the major characters in Falling in Place do not take control of their lives. Instead, they seem to fall numbly into place through indirection.

Of all the major characters in the novel, only Cynthia Forrest seems fully aware of how disappointing she finds her own life. From her standpoint, she is wasting a very good mind trying to teach summer-school students about literature. Perhaps ironically, her students dub her “Lost-in-the-Forrest”; from their standpoint, the name is apt. Cynthia does not usually concern herself with students as individuals, and she is using an anthology of excerpts, so the literature may seem unreal and the students’ personal experience irrelevant. The students’ welfare does not seem to be a concern for Cynthia. She becomes involved with one student, Mary, only when Mary’s father, John Knapp, expresses concern about Mary’s summer-school work and makes a date to talk to her teacher.

The conference between parent and teacher is not without some sexual overtones, and it takes place in a restaurant. If Mary’s welfare is really at issue here, it is lost in the dynamics of multiple protocols: the protocol of the business lunch, the protocol of the relationship between parent and teacher, and the unstated protocol between a young, attractive woman and an ostensibly successful man.

The summer-school class has disturbed Cynthia. One of her common nightmares, dreamed often after teaching, is that she is falling. Cynthia (realistically) believes that she is not reaching her students. She does not seem to realize that she has failed to help them link literature to their lives. The best Cynthia can do is to keep herself minimally functional. Her own love life is disappointing until the very end of the novel, when her whimsical, immature lover, Spangle, returns from Madrid, where he had rescued his wayward brother, and New York, where he failed to rekindle an old flame.

Most of the characters in Falling in Place are dying in their tracks. At the instigation of a friend who has proved himself monstrous in many respects, John Knapp’s ten-year-old son, John Joel, shoots his sister Mary. He had not known the gun was loaded.

John Knapp has been living with his mother in Rye, New York, where he is close to work and to his mistress, Nina. The family remains in Connecticut to be visited on weekends. The youngest of the Knapp children was brought to his paternal grandmother’s house to cheer her when the family first learned that she may have cancer. Louise, who is John’s wife and the children’s mother, did not attempt to keep her child. She even relinquishes John Joel after the shooting, and she accepts her divorce from John with philosophical stoicism.

The one time the readers see Louise in close contact with one of her children is when she takes John Joel berry-picking and...

(The entire section is 803 words.)