23 January 2013

Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)

This is Anne Tyler's latest novel, and it will probably be several years before she publishes another. It's her nineteenth, and like almost all of her others is set in Baltimore, Maryland, this one again specifically in or near Roland Park, where Tyler has lived for decades. She has a knack of writing about essentially similar subjects with similar characters, and yet each of her works remains distinctly memorable, none of them confusing itself with another. This is quite an achievement.
I don't think this is one of her strongest novels, though. It's shorter than most of the others, without anything like the same number of characters, and a certain depth is missing. But although the basic story – a man in a family publishing business who lost the use of his right arm and leg as a young child marries the doctor Dorothy, and after several years she is killed by a tree falling on their house but then returns from the dead to visit him – stretches crediblity almost to the limit, we must remember that this is Tyler and she somehow manages to carry it off.
The man (whom we've met in several different guises before) is Aaron Woolcott, who is only too pleased to escape his smothering mother and unmarried elder sister Nandina for a life with his non-domestic, hardworking wife while he half-pretends to edit tedious vanity publications, and also publishes 'Beginner's' books, a more upmarket version of Dummies.
His world collapses at the same time as the tree collapses on his wife, who collapses under the weight of the upset television. As the house has collapsed too, he must soon bow to the inevitable and take refuge in his sister's house. His bereavement has to take its course, and to smooth him through the process his dead wife makes several appearances. No one else can see her, although she usually talks to him but disappears when anyone else appears: there's not any suggestion that Aaron's going mad, rather this is shown as something the reader just has to, well, accept.
As builder Gil gets to work on the damaged house, his relationship with Nandina grows and he starts staying over: Aaron feels de trop and goes back to his almost repaired house. Soon, his wife's appearances cease and Aaron takes it in his stride. From the time of Aaron's wife's death to near the end of the novel we gradually learn that the marriage had been far from perfect:
'What I do remember is that familiar, weary, helpless feeling, the feeling that we were confined in some kind of rodent cage, wrestling together doggedly, neither one of us ever winning.'
This is almost the claustrophobic marital/familial battle context that many of Tyler's protagonists find themselves in, although by Dorothy's final appearance there seems to be a kind of resolution.
I'm not certain that the happy ending of Aaron's second marriage and fatherhood is one that I'd particularly have wished for though: it's a bit too neat.

My other Anne Tyler reviews are below:
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: 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: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

No comments: