My Life, Starring Dara Falcon
Unlike much of Ann Beattie’s fiction, My Life, Starring Dara Falcon does not have at its center a male-female relationship that disintegrates or develops. Rather, Beattie turns her camera-eye vision on a peculiar friendship between the narrator, Jean Warner, and the elusive but charismatic Dara Falcon. The title of the novel suggests the dual role these characters occupy in the narrative. While the plot ostensibly chronicles Jean’s attempts to develop her personality amid her husband’s smothering extended family, in many ways the novel has less to do with Jean and more to do with the starring role Dara plays in that development. Though mildly flawed by the blandness of the narrator, the novel rises above this problem by Beattie’s creation of Dara Falcon. Dara serves as a solid center to this novel, which challenges one’s notions about the value and dangers of friendship.
The novel opens in the early 1990’s with Jean lounging at a resort with her second husband. She casually picks up The New York Times and reads Dara Falcon’s obituary. After her initial shock at learning of Dara’s death, Jean takes the reader back in time to the early 1970’s, when she first met Dara, and then recounts the woman’s impact on her life.
As Jean begins the flashback, she is newly wed and living in Dell, New Hampshire, with her husband Bob, a no-nonsense part owner of his family’s nursery business. Because he stays all week in Boston with his grandmother and brother while he works on his C.P.A. degree, Jean rarely sees him and instead becomes dependent on Warner extended-family members who still live in Dell—Barbara, her mother-in-law, and Frank and Janey, her brother and sister-in-law, and their brood of children. Because Jean has no family of her own, she feels a desire to be liked by all the Warners and finds herself becoming the family errand girl.
Though Beattie tries to inject some humor into these early descriptions of the family by making them seem quirky—Bob gets Buddy Holly-like glasses, Bob’s niece reads aloud in a booming voice for no good reason—these details distract more than they illuminate. One wonders why one needs to know so much about such an obviously boring family. Jean seems to fit into this family’s blandness; she is perfectly happy doing very little. She has an occasional weekend meal with her husband or types a local woman’s autobiography. Jean does not feel troubled or interested in doing or being anything other than a dutiful family woman until she meets Dara Falcon.
When Dara enters the novel, everything about it changes—the pacing, the descriptions, the amount of reflection. Yet like the first-person narrator, Nick, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), who must gather information about Jay Gatsby, Jean learns about Dara gradually—some impressions of her at a birthday party, some from rumors, some from what other people say. Like Gatsby, Dara embellishes her life, so the reader, like Jean, must piece together the elements that seem likely. Also like Gatsby, Dara rises above the rumors and projections to be someone important by the sheer force of her desire to do so.
Dara’s life revolves around drama, and when drama does not naturally occur, she creates it. It is not surprising that she is an actress by trade, though she can never support herself very long in this profession. Rather, Dara travels around the country—she has just arrived in New Hampshire from Los Angeles when she first meets Jean—finding ramshackle apartments where she fixes up only one room—her private realm—and leaves the rest to look like a two-bit motel. She takes up with Tom Van Sant, the owner/operator of the rival nursery in town, and uses Jean as their go-between, a role Jean rises to despite her initial misgivings.
These meetings with Tom and Dara serve as the first real excitement Jean has known. No longer does she find herself on the periphery of things; she finally starts doing things for her own pleasure. In fact, the one time she does not go to a family function but instead has drinks with Dara and Tom, she precipitates one of the first rifts in her marriage to the boring and mostly absent Bob.
The intrigues in Dara’s life keep Jean’s life on edge as well. In an otherwise unpromising day, Dara calls and asks her to bring some rum in a hip flask to a local coffeehouse because she is upset. At another point, desperate for transportation, she coerces Jean into selling her a car for a dollar. When Dara and Tom break up, Dara convinces Jean to be the caretaker for the expensive, gaudy ring Tom had given her on...
(The entire section is 1904 words.)