The Cinderella Waltz by Ann Beattie, 1982

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by Ann Beattie, 1982

Ann Beattie's short story "The Cinderella Waltz" first appeared in the New Yorker in 1979. Later it was included in Prize Stories, 1980: The O. Henry Awards and her collection The Burning House. Two novels and three collections of short stories preceded their publication, but the stories in The Burning House were heralded as the best she had written. Carolyn Porter wrote in Contemporary American Women Writers (1985) that the pieces in the collection are "marked by understatement, caustic dialogue, and an unsentimental view of social relations." Porter adds that Beattie's technique of representing "surfaces of a world perceived as surface … have now begun to serve as a ground on which to build a more complex narrative."

An aspect of this complexity is her use of objects. Beattie strews objects on the path or plot of the narrative—not unlike Hansel and Gretel, who threw pebbles on the forest path—so that the reader will follow the object-strewn path, mapping a way to meaning. Raymond Carver, who like Beattie is often linked with the minimalist school, wrote in his essay "On Writing" (in Fires) that "it's possible, in a poem or a short story to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace language and to endow those things—a chair, a window-curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine—the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it."

In "The Cinderella Waltz" the objects serve in some cases as icons of meaning, but because meaning is elusive and mutable Beattie refrains from tagging or naming, and the objects—like the ivy, the tulip-shaped glasses, the glass slippers, and the glass elevator—reflect mobility and, consequently, mutability—Americans moving, always moving, in spaces, and among or between objects, looking for meaning, looking for roots.

This is apparent in "The Cinderella Waltz." Objects lie on the surfaces in a seemingly casual or haphazard manner, but as the story unfolds the objects take on a kind of patina of interest and meaning. Among these objects in the story are a blue, moth-eaten scarf, a coleus, a blue bowl, Beckett's Happy Days, an octascope, and various and sundry glasses, including references to glass slippers and a glass elevator, which become significant, reinforcing an aura of vulnerability—in particular, the vulnerability of the child Louise. Thus these objects are invested with meaning beyond the understated, seemingly casual placement in the landscape of the story. The glass elevator that figures in the end of the story is an example of such an object—an objective correlative. Louise's father, who is leaving New York for the West Coast, promises her that when she visits him he will take her up in a glass elevator, but at this point in the narrative the reader knows that the glass "box" functions as an encapsulation of the daughter to the whims and desires of her father, "the prince."

Porter notes that Beattie's "characters are attached to people and often to plants or dogs; their mobility is a characteristic of their lives. It is also a trail of that 'something lost,' a rootlessness of the American character which Beattie portrays in her short fiction." This mobility and rootlessness pervades the lives of her characters. In "The Cinderella Waltz" it manifests itself on physical and psychological levels. The four characters are in constant motion: the husband and father, Milo, leaves the house in Connecticut to live in New York City; the nine-year-old daughter Louise travels most weekends to visit her father in New York City. But just when the pattern or routine is established for the daughter, her father decides to move out to the West Coast. Although the other two characters seem to move about less than Milo and Louise, psychologically they have adjusted to quantum leaps—Milo's ex-wife to his leaving her for a man, Bradley, and Bradley to Milo's lackadaisical commitment in their relationship. It is significant that the child Louise is trying to root a plant for Bradley; she carries the ivy with her as she goes from her mother's home to her father's. She typifies the Beattie character stranded in spaces too vast to navigate. The characters in "The Cinderella Waltz" are adrift in space, but it is a peculiar American space, as the characters are American characters. One finds them portrayed throughout American fiction, not only by Beattie, but also by such writers as Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow, and John Irving.

Children and their relations to adults often figure in Beattie's fiction. "The Cinderella Waltz" centers on the relationships of the child, Louise. In an interview with Beattie conducted by Steven R. Centola for Contemporary Literature (1990), she stated that "the nuclear family has broken down, so there's a different set of realities. I think adults often make the mistake of thinking they understand children. I think children are always watching and understanding but may not be quite as comprehensible to the parents as they think." In "The Cinderella Waltz" the child is watching and understanding but is nevertheless unable to control the direction of the events that overtake her. It is her dilemma that adds poignancy to a story told with restraint and without sentimentality. Beattie articulates this complexity in the story through her use of objects and through her sense of what it means to live in American spaces—to live in a state of constant mobility, balancing the precarious relationships we so devoutly seek and need.

—Alice Swensen

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The Cinderella Waltz by Ann Beattie, 1982

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The Cinderella Waltz by Ann Beattie, 1982