Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Should we toss Anne Tyler in the recycling bin? A review of The Beginner's Goodbye

The Beginner's Goodbye
by Anne Tyler
208 pages
Reviewed by Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

Last year I ran into something that irritated the heck out of me: authors who recycled plots, characters, scenes, and even specific lines of dialogue.  One novel had a confrontation at a grocery store; a similar scene happened in another novel written by the same author.  Another author wrote about a woman with a brain tumor who spoke gibberish in church. Twelve years earlier, the same author wrote the same lines about her mother during Passover, indicating—you guessed it--the first signs of a brain tumor.

So when I picked up the newest Anne Tyler novel The Beginner's Goodbye, I didn't have high expectations. Why?  I knew we would be in Tyler Country.  It’s a lovely country, but there are some things you need to know about it:
  • The male characters are distant, befuddled when people get upset by their passiveness.
  • The distant men have bossy older sisters.
  • Baltimore in its glory is like a character in the novel with its eateries, quirky businesses (usually owned by the main family) and tree-lined streets.
  • Death occurs in the novel, making the distant men even more distant.
  • A child, a woman, or a good friend usually jolts the men back to life.
  • There are lovely details that make you gasp and weep.

Such is the case in The Beginner's Goodbye.  The Distant Man in question, Aaron, is stunned by the death of his wife Dorothy, killed when a tree fell on their house.  Aaron is torn to shreds by guilt because they had a fight before she died.  Now here come Tyler's details: every evening, Dorothy had six Triscuits for a snack.  When she couldn't find them on the night in question, she picked a fight with Aaron.  Tyler builds the scene quietly: the precision of the crackers, the bickering.  Then when the tree falls on the house, the reader wonders “Whoa, did I just hear that?”

Stunned, Aaron moves back in with (here she comes!) Bossy Older Sister.  In this case she's Nandina, who runs a self-publishing vanity press with Aaron.  There's no doubt Nandina loves her younger brother.  She does her best to get him back in the land of the living by setting him up with another widow and arranging to having his house renovated.

But then Dorothy shows up, coming back from the dead to visit Aaron in a ghostly apparition.  Aaron must decide if he wants to continue living in the past or go on to a potentially scary future.

The Beginner's Goodbye is geographically located in the center of Tyler Country, a place where we've been several times before.  But it's a lovely novel because of Anne Tyler's writing: whether it’s how she describes the courtship of Aaron and Dorothy as it develops in a shy and awkward way; Aaron’s realization that a woman he's known all his life might be something more; or the symbolism of the renovated house.  The reader knows Tyler has used these tricks before (in The Accidental Tourist, for instance), but we can forgive her recycling old material, because the writing is so fine.

I nearly dropped my copy of The Beginner's Goodbye when I reached the last line: “We go around and around in this world, and here we go again.”  I, for one, am happy I got to take another trip to Tyler Country.

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons lives in Lafayette, California with many books and two spoiled cats. She blogs for Red Room and is the author of two ebooks: Take What You Got and Fly With It and I Woke Up In Love This Morning.  You can buy her books at Smashwords.

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