One day, itinerant salesman Beck tells his wife Pearl that he's leaving her and their three children – Cody (14), Ezra (11) and Jenny (9) – and tells her that he won't be coming back. Pearl doesn't understand, and she never will, but mother and children remain in Baltimore just carrying on. As Beck only sends her $50 a month, she adds to this by working as a cashier, although she never says anything to anyone – not even the kids – about her husband's desertion.
The second section, 'Teaching the Cat to Yawn', is seen through the point of view of Cody, who is the family prankster, the teenager with a bad reputation, a petty thief, he takes fabricated photos to make his brother look bad, he's a smoker, and he cheats at monopoly to boot. He also sees himself as an outsider to Baltimore, a person who's not accepted.
The third section belongs to Jenny. It begins when Cody is away at college, and Ezra, just before going off to fight in Korea, asks her, in his absence, to visit two town outsiders: Mrs Scarlatti, whose restaurant he's been working in, who lives on her own, and whose son has been killed in action; and Josiah Payson, the scarecrow people make fun of because they think he's a dummy, although he may well be brighter than Jenny and Ezra.
So Jenny and her mother Pearl have the house to themselves for a short time, but they communicate by not communicating: 'Their talk was small talk, little dibs and dabs of things, safely skating over whatever might lie beneath.' But Ezra soon returns, discharged because of his sleepwalking. (Incidentally, it's amazing how many of Tyler's characters figuratively sleepwalk through life.)
Medical student Jenny grows into a beauty and ill-advisedly marries student prodigy and socially inept control freak Harley Baines, Cody becomes an efficiency expert, and Ezra moves into a partnership with Mrs Scarlatti in the restaurant trade, going on to inherit the business.
The fifth section resumes Cody's story and lingers on his annoyance with the 'sissy pale goody-goody Ezra', who captivates the girls without trying, and without even noticing, as he'd prefer to play his recorder: the good-brother bad-brother scenario unfolds through adulthood, culminating here in Cody stealing Ezra's girl Ruth. (And I may be wrong, but surely this is the first time in the ten Tyler books I've read that a person uses such a strong word as 'shit'; later in the novel, she uses 'bastard' and 'crap': gosh!). This section highlights the dysfunctions of the family once again, and dinners (where people are socially captive – a favorite trick of Tyler's) frequently tend to accentuate faultlines.
The 'Beaches on the Moon' section continues the depiction of the damaged family, with Cody becoming increasingly suspicious of (even paranoid about) Ezra in relation to Ruth and his son Luke, and his consequent movement away from Pearl.
Cody has an accident at work and becomes nastier still, even to the point of claiming that Luke is Ruth and Ezra's child. What can Luke do? Well, the very thing that Tyler's characters are noted for – he takes flight. But as he's only 14 years old, Cody soon brings him back. (For Tyler, road trips (along with the dinners mentioned before) are excellent ways to bring long-nurtured ill feelings to the fore, but here Luke's hitchhike is an opportunity for the narrator to introduce light relief through eccentric characters.)
In the final section, Beck returns on the day of his wife Pearl's funeral and (at dinner!) sees what he thinks is 'one of those great big, jolly, noisy, rambling [...] families', but big bad Cody (who of course has his good points too) tells him it's not like that, that hardly any of the kids are related to him, that Cody hasn't seen these people in years, that the family is 'in particles, torn apart, torn all over the place', and that his mother was an excessively violent witch. Yes, Anne Tyler is playing happy families again.
This is one of the best of her novels I've read so far.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: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
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)