The Beginner's Goodbye, By Anne Tyler

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In her 19th novel, Anne Tyler revisits old ground with a passive male protagonist, Aaron, the familiar Baltimore setting and themes of domestic disharmony. Like so many of Tyler's male characters, the reserved but endearing Aaron is something of an oddity. Seeming older than his 36 years, he walks with a cane and suffers a limp arm after childhood illness, but considers himself on balance, "unluckier but no unhappier than other people". Reluctantly, Aaron works in the family vanity publishers, which has a sideline in beginners' guides (hence the novel's title), versions of the Dummies series, but with a more specific focus because "anything is manageable if it is divided into small enough increments".

Having always been cosseted, first by his mother and then his domineering sister Nandina, Aaron's attraction to Dorothy is precisely her lack of emotion. Despite being a doctor, she is "a non care-taker". Whether this is a sound foundation for love is not questioned until, after a petty argument, a tree falls through the roof, killing Dorothy.

Withdrawing into memories of his practical if unromantic marriage, Aaron, an atheist, is unsurprised when he sees Dorothy on the street, an event described without sentiment or special emphasis: "I turned the bend and she was standing there." Allowing that he might have cause to conjure up her image, the matter-of-fact Aaron is bemused that others seem aware of her presence: "the strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted".

The good people of Tyler's Baltimore recognise the futility of questioning inexplicable events, offering practical help instead. Tyler, herself famously private and shy, employs her trademark tone of gentle satire when Aaron, the "let's move on type", attempts to dodge his predictable, well-meaning neighbours' gifts of food and guidance. The wry, colloquial narrative captures him reading each "thinking of you!" label, recording each dish and writing the requisite identical thank-you notes, before throwing the food away, untouched.

The scene is at once funny and familiar. Holding a mirror to her characters' attempts to deal with their own grief and the grief of others, Tyler uses simple, elegant prose to manifest her particular brands of realism and humour.

Here, as with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons, the healing of loss happens at the childhood home. Aaron is forced to move back to his family house to live with Nandina when the remaining roof collapses, a fact about which he is sure she is "thrilled". It's through the daily routine of bickering with his sister and the ghost of his wife that Aaron slowly comes to understand truths about his relationship with Dorothy, and about himself.

This is not a dramatic transformation but a slow, hard-won realisation that comes with time and constant picking-over the same problem. For the essentially optimistic Tyler, this process allows for rejuvenation and the opportunity for a second chance. For Tyler's many fans, her latest work won't disappoint.

Comments