An Understated and Gently Profound Voice
“The Beginner’s Goodbye”
A book by Anne Tyler
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.
To see long excerpts from “The Beginner’s Goodbye” at Google Books, click here.
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.”
A little crush he had on a co-worker now becomes cause to avoid her because that innocent crush now “seemed obscene.” Aaron wants people to leave him alone and hates his doorbell. He misses his wife’s shortcomings, the things about her that annoyed him. He wishes they would still annoy him so he could stop missing her. And this: “It seemed heartless I should think to go in for my semi-annual dental checkup, but I did. And then I bought myself some new socks. Socks, of all things! So trivial!” This understanding of how the trifling things of life take on new weight in the wake of grief is extremely well done.
One of the most poignant moments comes when Aaron visits his old house, now under repair. The workmen have left for the day and something hangs on in the atmosphere:
“I felt I’d interrupted a conversation about richer, fuller lives than mine, and when I drifted through the bare rooms it wasn’t only to reclaim my house; it was also, just a little bit, in the hope that some of that richness might have been left behind for me.“
Then, too, there is that Tyler humor. The vanity press publishes family and travel memoirs by authors who pay for its services, but its bread and butter comes from publishing beginner’s guides on a hilariously focused series of subjects: “The Beginner’s Soups,” “The Beginner’s Colicky Baby,” “The Beginner’s Kitchen Equipment” and my favorite, “The Beginner’s Spice Cabinet.” Hence, of course, the title of the novel. Tyler uses humor throughout the book to good effect. At one point the soup Aaron is served is described as being “cream of flour, as near as I could make out.” Consider this commentary on television advertising:
“I would listen to announcers rattling off the side effects of all the medications they were touting. ‘Oh sure,’ I would tell them. ‘I’ll run out and buy that tomorrow. Why let a little uncontrollable diarrhea put me off, or kidney failure, or cardiac arrest?’
Dorothy used to hate it when I talked back like that. ‘Do you mind?’ she would ask. ‘I can’t hear a word they’re saying.‘ “
It is in this way — through the remembrances and spectral appearances — that Aaron slowly comes to terms with his loss and the truth about his marriage: that it was, as he describes it, “Out of sync. Uncoordinated.”
If I have criticisms about the book they stem from the fact that the first sentence is so alluring, the rest of the novel is hard-pressed to live up to it. I wanted to see more of the ghostly Dorothy, and she doesn’t return — at least not in ghostly form — until nearly two-thirds of the way through. Although I kept waiting for her to reappear, apart from the initial introduction, she is less a ghost than a projection of Aaron’s mind. And fine, that may very well be what all ghosts are, but the wonderful first two pages led me to expect something else. She pops up in odd places, briefly, and when she and Aaron talk it is almost in non sequiturs. Tyler leads us to believe, with that early reference to how other people reacted to Dorothy’s ghost, that there is some interplay between the ghost and others, but there really isn’t. As well, the character of Aaron reads much older than he is. I was surprised to discover, quite far into the novel, that he is only 34. From the beginning, I assumed he was in his 50s or 60s. The ending is gentle and pleasant, but felt ever-so-slightly predictable.
Criticisms aside, this is a fine book. Anne Tyler is a master of the small moment, able to observe and relate details others may well miss. Her insights into grief and loss are precise and poignant, and people who have lost a loved one will recognize themselves here. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to lure Tyler over for dinner, so I shall make do with her subtle, graceful books.
Lauren B. Davis is the author of five books, most recently “Our Daily Bread,” which was named one of the best books of the year by The Boston Globe.