Characters in two of the short stories in The Burning House represent definitive types that appear in Beattie’s novels. Ruth in “Learning to Fall,” the collection’s first story, is a loving, nurturing, single parent and friend. She is “learning to fall”—literally, in a dance class, but figuratively as well—to accept the inevitable. Her husband left her while she was pregnant, and her lover admires her but does not want any of the responsibility of Ruth, whose son, Andrew, was damaged in the process of being born.
The narrator of the story, a friend of Ruth, has a sometime lover, Ray, who visits with Andrew and the narrator, showing great gentleness to the two; they regularly take the excursion to New York so that Ruth can entertain her lover in Westport. In a restaurant with Andrew and the narrator, Ray patiently tries to help Andrew locate his gloves. When all three leave the restaurant to return to the street, the narrator sees herself with Ray and Andrew and imagines the possibility of the inevitable relationship. Perhaps she is falling. She decides that at least she can be like her friend Ruth and “aim for grace.”
In “The Burning House,” the title story of the collection in which “Learning to Fall” appears, there is a character who may be called a second definitive type. Frank behaves in a way that suggests to the narrator, his wife, that her frustrating marriage is deteriorating. Frank has made the important decisions: He has even “chosen the house,” and the house is burning. In the final scene, with the couple in bed, Frank delivers to his wife what some critics have recognized as the ultimate insult—his conception of the difference between the sexes:Men think they’re Spiderman and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don’t feel? That we’re going to the stars. . . . I’m looking down on all this from space. . . . I’m already gone.