‘The Beautiful Mountains’ by John Cheever

The Beautiful Mountains by John Cheever, 1947

The magic trick:

Building the story around realism that begs questions

Lucy and her young son are off to Vermont for a ski weekend as a bit of relief from the tension in their Manhattan apartment where it sounds as if Lucy and her mother-in-law don’t always see eye to eye.

If that sounds like a loaded premise, you’re right, it is.

This entire story is full of things that the story introduces and immediately moves on from without much exploration and explanation. The result is a reality that builds upon itself, one intriguing headscratcher of a situation at a time.

And I don’t mean to suggest that the story is surrealist or even particularly extreme. Nothing here is downright bizarre. I’d call it “normal but prompting questions.” Consider: a young woman and a little boy are vacationing alone in the 1940s at a ski cabin? OK. Interesting. There seems to be much more to that story, we think. But we don’t find out. We’re left to assume and wonder.

Well, four or five things like that and the reader is awash in wondering.

Even the conclusion, tidy in its cynicism and social critique, winds up making the reader wonder anew about what this family’s life really is like. It’s a story full of trouble.

And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.

The selection:

Lucy was a pretty woman with a slender face and bright, fine hair that had not darkened at all, although she was nearly thirty. She was friendly, devout, and correct, and no one had ever been able to divine any malice in her character. Her pleasant disposition had been tried in the last five years, for she had spent all of them living in a small apartment with her mother-in-law.

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