Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

As the title implies, many of the stories in What Was Mine are concerned with characters' recovering and understanding their own past. Many characters face loss and a sense of failure, but others are able to come to terms with and even build on their past lives. The protagonist of "Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life," who had worked as a milkman until his wife's career took off, reminisces about his marriage of over forty years to a busy detective story writer who has also produced five children. Portrayed as a sort of still and unifying force in a whirlwind of creation and procreation, a counterpoint to his wife, the narrator's imaginative efforts to bring together his life, both by his scrapbook of leaves and his imagined day, are deeply felt expressions of a predominantly good and loving family man. In the far sadder title story, a similar man is rejected by a woman after he has acted as a responsible and loving stepfather for many years to her son. In a perverted quest to hang on to the past, she has ironically carried the torch for her dead husband by withholding any information of him from their son and has thus unnecessarily fragmented three lives.

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The ambivalence and sometimes sad compromise found in even loving relationships is as common a theme here as in Beattie's other work. In "In Amalfi," a divorced woman takes a vacation with her ex-husband. She is given a ring by a strange woman merely for safekeeping, but as she slips into bed, "something about the ring bothered her, like a grain of sand in an oyster." "The Longest Day of the Year" has a variation on this theme: A separating couple shares a hilarious story about an emotionally unhinged Welcome Wagon lady — a story whose downside is the dissolution of the couple's own marriage. In "Honey," a woman in a seemingly stable marriage bonds to a younger man during a swarming of bees.

Often faulted for her lack of a redeeming vision, Beattie nevertheless shows in several stories in this volume that people can and do love each other and that some characters do live their lives in a way that makes life better for other people. Chap, for instance, cares for his elderly uncle, Marshall, despite the vexations of communicating with him.

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Characters