Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Ann Beattie’s short story “Snow” is only a few pages long, and its brevity is no accident. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator who “grew up, fell in love, and spent the winter with her lover in the country.” On the one hand, this single winter may seem like an almost insignificant moment in time; and as the author tries to reconstruct precisely what happens that winter, the details her memory produces do seem rather paltry.
Or are they? She recalls a chipmunk jumping out of a pile of firewood and running through the house. She recalls when she and her lover painted the kitchen yellow, covering up garish wallpaper printed with grapes as big as ping-pong balls, and she remembers her persistent feeling that the grapevines were too hardy to be undermined by something as wishy-washy as a coat of paint; she fully expected them to come “popping through, the way some plants can tenaciously push through anything.” She remembers, more than anything, snow—snow so pervasive that it filled the sky like an enormous field of Queen Anne’s lace.
These memories are significant, because in every case there is a sense of something indigenous being taken over by something that really doesn’t belong there. The chipmunk belonged in the firewood, just as to the chipmunk a stack of wood “belongs” outside; he should be disconcerted at finding himself inside, but he runs through the library and stops “at the front door as if it knew the house well.” The chipmunk was indigenous to this place; the lovers are interlopers. Similarly, the dated wallpaper belonged to the house, and the new coat of yellow paint seems out of place because the people who applied that paint don’t belong there. The metaphor of falling snow as Queen Anne’s lace is apt here because Queen Anne’s lace—which is a wildflower—does not belong in the sky, and it doesn’t grow in the winter.
She mentions one last memory, which actually takes place some years after the winter she lived there. The gentleman in the house next door dies, and the narrator returns to pay her respects to the widow. She looks back at what “had been our house” and sees several crocuses poking weakly through the April ground. Rather than seeing them as symbolic of the power of life against death, she says the flowers “couldn’t compete.”
Can’t compete with what? We are always encouraged to put the past behind us, to set our eyes on the horizon and go on. In this case the author has done that. She and her lover have broken up, and she has (apparently) gone on with her life. But try as she might, she cannot negate the power that winter in the country still holds on her imagination; she cannot dismiss it as unimportant. If we are defined by a single moment in our lives, for her, that winter had the power to define her.
“Snow” can be found in the collection Where You’ll Find Me and Other Stories.
It is available in paperback from Amazon here:
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