Digging to America, by Anne Tyler

Adopting the American dream
Click to follow

Two American families are waiting at Baltimore airport for a delayed flight from Korea on a summer night in 1997. Ziba and Sami Yazdan, first generation Iranian Americans, wait with Sami's glamorous widowed mother, Maryam. Standing next to them is a noisy, sprawling host of flag-waving relatives and friends of Bitsy and Brad Donaldson. As the hours drag, the families realise they are both waiting for the flight that will bring their adoptive baby daughters.

From this accidental meeting an ambivalent but profound friendship takes root between the Yazdans and the Donaldsons, which Anne Tyler's novel explores with her usual talent for forensic attention to emotional detail. How these families nurture their adoptive daughters, Jin-Ho Donaldson and Susan Yazdan, speaks volumes about how they understand and negotiate their place in American society. But there are universal truths here about repression, guilt, estrangement and, finally, the acceptance of uncomfortable realities.

Susan's arrival and the growing bond between the families forces grandmother Maryam to confront her own disquiet about her relationship with America. A politically active student in pre-revolutionary Iran, she accepted an arranged marriage to an Iranian doctor in Baltimore. While Maryam is grateful to America as a refuge, Tyler conveys her sense of being eternally other, wary of its slopping sentimentality and subtle pressure to conform.

That pressure is played out between clashing parenting styles. Bitsy is the epitome of the Helicopter Parent who has devoted her life to moulding a brilliant future for her daughter. Home-spun Bitsy is big on invented traditions, disdaining routine and set bedtimes for little Jin-Ho, whom she dresses in scratchy Korean outfits which are ditched as soon as her daughter is old enough to express her sartorial opinion.

The Yazdans are more pragmatic. They Anglicise their daughter's Korean name to Susan as they worry about easing her integration. The widowed Maryam, who acts as part-time nanny to Susan, is a shrewd narrator, and draws a parallel between the adoptive childrens' integration and that of her own. Even after decades in Baltimore, venturing out into her suburban neighbourhood still requires effort because even casual conversation raises the possibility of mistakes.

The Donaldsons take their place as upwardly mobile but right-thinking Americans so much for granted that their concern is focused on Jin-Ho preserving her Korean cultural identity. But Jin-Ho is astute enough to sniff out the artificiality of these gestures, and by the time she reaches primary school is insisting that everyone call her "Jo". The Yazdans just hope that Susan won't have to endure their experience as outsiders.

Tyler uses the set-piece of the family's joint celebration of the girls' "Arrival Day" to frame the novel. At the opening, Bitsy's mother is ill with cancer; two years later she has died and her husband Dave is deep in mourning. He is the alternate narrator, looking with wry affection at his ambitious, pushy but kind-hearted daughter.

In his new role of babysitter to Jin-Ho, he develops a close relationship to Maryam, alternately attracted to and wary of his affection. There is a subtle competition between the families as the women aim for increasingly elaborate menus each year.

One of the novel's most powerful moments lies in Maryam's realisation that her estrangement is not ultimately about nationhood, but something far more elusive: "Somehow, for no reason she could name, she had never felt at home in her own country or anywhere else". There is so much truth here, as Tyler strips away the issue of ethnic difference to reach the heart of her complex and compelling matter.