May 21, 2013
An Understated and Gently Profound Voice
Posted on Apr 27, 2012
“The Beginner’s Goodbye”
Judging from the wit, observational skills, insight and compassion exhibited in Anne Tyler’s novels, she’s just the sort of person with whom I’d love to have a very long chat over dinner, and honestly, I don’t say that about many writers. Tyler’s perspective on life is uniquely her own, and yet to the reader it feels absolutely correct, filled with those moments of recognition that make reading such a pleasure.
Perhaps this perspective is due in some part to Tyler’s background. Although she now lives in Baltimore, where all of her 19 novels are set, she was born in Minneapolis, the eldest of four children. Her father was a chemist and her mother a social worker. She spent her childhood in Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina and in Raleigh and didn’t attend a formal school until she was 11. Was it this quiet, contemplative tradition that shaped her worldview and her understated, yet gently profound prose? Possibly. In an era when novelists are publicity ninjas, Tyler lives far from the glitterati, does not grant face-to-face interviews (although she made an exception this year), rarely does book tours and only occasionally agrees to email interviews. There is a story that, in 1989, on the morning after Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize (for “Breathing Lessons”), she politely but firmly turned away a reporter by saying she was simply too busy writing to talk. The reporter had apparently interrupted her in the middle of a sentence.
She published her first book, “If Morning Ever Comes,” in 1964 and since then a new book has appeared every few years. Tyler’s ninth novel, “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983. “The Accidental Tourist” was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was made into a movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. “Ladder of Years” was shortlisted for the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996, and “Digging for America” was shortlisted for the same prize in 2007. This year she is the winner of the Sunday Times (of London) Award for Literary Excellence. Proving she’s not a recluse in the style of, say, J.D. Salinger, she went to London—her first trip to the U.K.—this month to receive the award and was interviewed by the newspaper’s chief fiction critic.
Tyler once said, “There aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel.” She writes about families and how complicated they are. She writes about ordinary, if eccentric, characters and their problems: marriage, sibling rivalry, resentments and losses. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” continues this tradition.
This elegant, witty and elegiac novel begins with the marvelous first line, “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” If that’s not going to keep the reader reading, I can’t imagine what might. Aaron, the protagonist, has a crippled right arm and leg, but thinks of himself as “unluckier but no unhappier” than anyone else. He spent his childhood keeping his bossy sister at arm’s length. He is an editor at a vanity press that publishes “Beginner’s Guides” on various subjects, and while editing “The Beginner’s Cancer” he meets Dorothy, a somewhat detached and self-contained doctor. They fall in love, marry and live unremarkable lives until a tree crashes through the house and kills Dorothy. Since the house is uninhabitable, Aaron moves in with his sister, and, “months and months later,” begins seeing Dorothy’s ghost. This is not, however, a ghost story. It’s the story of an ordinary man coming to terms with grief. Although Tyler does not write autobiographical fiction, she certainly knows this she lost her husband of 34 years, psychoanalyst Taghi Modarressi, in 1997 when he died of lymphoma.
The strength of this slim, almost feather-light, novel is in the psychological observations of the grieving process. Consider: “That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.”
There is a moment early in the novel when Aaron looks at Dorothy’s body lying in the hospital bed:
“The cords and hoses had been removed and she lay uncannily still. I had thought she was still before, but I had had no idea. I had been so ignorant.”
When he walks the streets he can’t help but notice how healthy everyone looks.
“A boy standing at an intersection had so much excess energy that he bounded from foot to foot as he waited for us to pass. People looked so robust, so indestructible.”
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