21 February 2012

Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

Rebecca Davitch is having a picnic with her family on North Fork River, Maryland, celebrating the engagement of her youngest stepdaughter NoNo. The narrator says 'The Davitches' cars circled the meadow like covered wagons braced for attack'. But as this is Anne Tyler, most readers only vaguely acquainted with her work will be aware that any attacks are more likely to come from internal snipers than Red Indians. And sure enough there is some criticism of NoNo's fiancé Barry. And there's criticism of Barry's extremely shy son Peter, whose mother left them to join a group of Buddhists, rather similar to the way in which Joe's wife Tina had deserted him and their three daughters (of whom NoNo is one) with a view to being a singer in New York.

This is essentially Rebecca's story. She's a social organizer (continuing the job of her husband Joe, who died in a car crash as he's another of Tyer's bad drivers, and whose father killed himself), she prepares functions and makes sure everyone at least is giving the appearance of being happy. But is she that kind of person? As a young girl, a little like Peter, she 'tended to stay on the fringe of things, observings things from a distance, and she noticed that what she observed was often outside the normal frame of vision'.

It's not outside the normal frame of vision of Anne Tyler's characters to impulsively walk out of things, and that's just what the young Rebecca did, she walked out of the arms of the virginal Will, out of college without graduating, and into the arms of the less-than-virginal and much older Joe.

The older Rebecca starts to imagine what kind of life she'd have had if she'd stuck with the academic Will, who is now a university professor. She begins to see this lost life as her 'true real life' and the one she's been living as her 'fake real life'. The I that she now is sees her past I as a she, and Rebecca wonders if she can change that she back to I, and vice versa. But does she really want to do that, even if it's possible?

Many things, big and small, keep recurring in Anne Tyler's work: the inability of people to communciate with each other, alienation, the self-destruction of the family, the self-destruction of the individual, the importance of memory, celebration, the corrosion of time, the minutiae of everyday life seen through social, psychological and linguistic tics, impulsiveness/prudence, acceptance/refusal, the tyranny of the telephone, food as metaphor, the absurd, chance, the 'trying on' of different lives, the playoff between dream and reality, Ann Landers, etc. There's happiness too, but not an abundance of it. There are never any pat conclusions, and all her work is shot through with the difficulty of the business of living. When her grandchild Abdul is born, Rebecca imagines his thoughts, which might well be a mirror of her own, or our own:

'Who are you? What kind of people have I ended up with, here? How am I going to like living on this planet?'

The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

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