Anne Tyler’s novels are punctuation marks in my own lifeline. Her first novels I discovered in college — If Morning Ever Comes and The Tin Can Tree — but by the time I got to graduate school, Celestial Navigation, Searching for Caleb, and Earthly Possessions captured my fancy as a reader. As each of her novels came out, I found myself compelled to purchase the hardcopy first edition. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons and Saint Maybe got me through my thirties with a secret thirst for more good stories from Anne Tyler.
Her latest novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is perhaps her best. I’ve said that before. In fact, every new release shows her growth as a novelist. In her storytelling style, there’s a preposterous premise that could only be based in some reality; you can’t make this stuff up entirely. One day a couple has a quibbling and they go to opposite ends of the house. The wife, Dorothy, in fact, goes out onto the sunporch. Aaron, her husband, goes to his room and pouts.
A tree falls on the house, crushing the sunporch, killing his wife. This reader is hooked. Grief, letting go, getting on, and seeing ghosts are themes Anne Tyler explores with genuine grace. In grief, the one thing a surviving spouse misses more than anything else is the physicality of the absent partner. Being in their presence again is the most urgent yearning. Tyler creates characters believable for their foibles and quirks and in so doing one can believe that Aaron senses Dorothy during a year of grief. This is not a fictionalization of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking but there is a similar sensibility created through Tyler’s style of magical realism. Its’ effect makes the story line both plausible and cathartic for readers who have known such grief.
“Maybe the reason I didn’t ask Dorothy why she had come back when she did was that I worried it would make her ask herself the same question. If she had just sort of wandered back, absent-mindedly, the way you would return to an old address out of habit, then once I’d brought it up she might say, “Oh! My goodness! I should be going!”
“Or maybe she would imagine I was asking what she was doing here. Why she had come back at all, in other words. Like when you ask a houseguest how long he’s planning to stay and he suspects you’re asking, “When can I hope to be rid of you?” Maybe that was why I felt it wouldn’t be polite.
“It would kill me if she left. I had already gone through that once. I didn’t think I could do it all over again.” (p. 7)
Tyler shows how differently men grieve, though just as deeply. The novels I’ve grown to love from Anne Tyler are those that explore the strange ways in which humans relate in family structures. She does so here again exploring Aaron’s relationship to his spinster sister, Nandina, who takes him into her home during the first year and falls in love with the contractor Aaron hires to remove the tree and repair the damage to the house. Tyler consistently creates secondary characters who make up an ensemble cast to the overall plot with interesting subplots.
One clever narrative thread woven throughout is Aaron’s employment; from whence the title comes. Beginner’s Books are an imprint of the publishing company; the family business of Aaron and his sister Nandina. Aaron is a senior editor for those authors who want to self-publish and he’s responsible for the success of the series of books published in the Beginner’s series. Tyler takes jabs discretely at the publishing industry and yet couches her novel in a certain timeless era that is not quite postmodern and social media saturated. In doing so, she implies publishing is an industry built on making money from authors. What she highlights is how little time is spent on making money from selling books in the tradition of the vanity press. There are some very funny scenes in the office amongst Aaron’s coworkers in publishing that make this ensemble cast feel like people you already know. This is what Tyler does best. In fiction, she holds a mirror up to our culture and in it we see ourselves and the people we know. And many grieve. For these readers, and those who can’t imagine what it is to lose your life partner, Tyler creates a fictional world that embraces grief and its many apparitions.