Ann Beattie Looks at the Heart of a Friendship

My Life, Starring Dara Falcon

By Ann Beattie

Alfred A. Knopf

307 pp., $24

Two people meet, form first impressions, bump into each other a few more times, and eventually become close - if complicated - friends.

It happens all the time. But what's behind these friendships? What are the factors that attract one person to another at a particular moment? And what are the results of this fusion of mind and emotion?

These are the musings beneath the surface in Ann Beattie's latest novel, "My Life, Starring Dara Falcon."

This well-written work unearths the motives and yearnings at the heart of a friendship between the somewhat drab and gullible Jean Warner and the stunning, but slightly sinister, Dara Falcon.

On one level, the friendship's source is simple. Jean is an orphan living in small-town New Hampshire, who married young in search of an instant family. Dara is an actress who doesn't know when to stop the performance. She espouses a throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude that quickly turns the bucolic setting where she reappears after 10 years on its head.

What Jean is lacking - excitement and direction in her life, a sense of self-awareness - Dara has in abundance. What Dara has never had - a sincere admirer, an earnest friend - Jean offers her.

But the symbiosis is quickly set askew. Jean begins to use Dara as a mirror, first to see her life more clearly, then to emulate Dara, and finally, to perceive the truth about Dara. In the end, Jean is left questioning the validity of her new life because it has its roots in the faade of Dara's.

In this vein, the book's title, "My Life, Starring Dara Falcon," is apt in its ambiguity. Is the "life" Jean's, with Dara as leading lady, Dara as the actress who is able to interpret Jean's life? Or is the "life" Dara's?, the implication being the book is primarily about Dara - the Dara that she presents to the world and the Dara that Jean has came to know.

Beattie's book is a page turner that draws its strength from the author's eye for detail and her ability to build a mystery around the woman who calls herself Dara Falcon. The reader discovers Dara at the same pace as Jean does.

"I began to realize that it bothered me that we all paled in comparison to Dara," Beattie writes of Jean in the early stages of her thinking.

"She was living her life at least - following her instincts.... One of the things I liked about her was that her life wasn't a process of trying to restrain herself."

Then Jean begins to think more critically. "Though I had looked at her as an inspiration, another way of seeing her might be that she was barely holding on: she had no job; she was not getting acting parts; she was living in a borrowed apartment, and when (if?) she left there, where would she go?"

The novel does bog down toward the end, when most everyone in the cast of characters is shadowed by a sense of malaise and it becomes clear to the reader that Dara is no longer a sympathetic character.

But overall, the book is a fascinating study of how two women are nourished by each other's failings - and of how only one of them can survive.

* Christina Nifong is a Monitor correspondent based in Atlanta.

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