The Beginner's Goodbye, By Anne Tyler

A wife dies in a freak accident; her widower starts seeing visions of her: the stage is set for another cleverly observed Anne Tyler miniature

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The Independent Culture

It has become almost a cliché to praise Anne Tyler's writing for its cleverly casual expression of the ordinary.

Nick Hornby says he wishes he could write like her. Even John Updike called her "not merely good, but wickedly good". Breathing Lessons won her the Pulitzer prize, and some of her fans' favourite novels (this is her 19th) have become bestsellers: The Accidental Tourist, The Amateur Marriage and, probably my own favourite, 2006's Digging to America.

With Tyler, then, you know you're in extremely safe hands. Is that an experience that risks becoming dull and predictable? It should be but it never is. And The Beginner's Goodbye is no exception. Like all her novels, it is set in suburban Baltimore and takes us into the heart and mind of an ordinary – and actually dangerously boring – person.

Aaron is a copy editor in a publishing house that specialises in Beginner's Guides. He has a nice line in lampooning his own work. ("I needed a book called 'The Beginner's Demented Secretary'," he says when tormented by one of his work colleagues.) He is both sad and happy. Sad because Dorothy, the love of his life, eight years his senior and his wife for a decade, is killed in a freak accident when an oak tree falls on their conservatory. But also happy, because, several weeks after her death, Dorothy begins reappearing in his life.

If this already sounds annoying and poltergeisty, don't be put off. It's nothing like that. Aaron finds that when he talks to others who have been recently bereaved, they also have the sense of having seen or felt the other person, and so he learns to believe that his experience is real.

Tyler manages this very carefully. It's a novel, so we are free to imagine that Dorothy could come back (though this is Anne Tyler here, not Anne Rice, so it's pretty unlikely). But we also imagine plenty of other scenarios. Is Aaron going mad? Is Dorothy really alive and Aaron an unreliable narrator? Is there some kind of Sixth Sense thing going on here?

These expectations are played with carefully and there is constantly the sense that Tyler had a lot of fun writing this novel. Aaron is a wonderful person to spend time with. He's in his thirties but has the mind and speech of someone a lot older, which is why he was first attracted to the equally dry and sensible Dorothy. Something about the two of them reminded me of Marge and Norm in the film Fargo. They're charming, adorable and eccentric.

Indeed, it's all very cinematic. There's something of Tyler's work that can often feel like a screenplay: the closely observed tics of everyday life; the nuances of the glances between not-so-happily married couples; the awful, funny things people say to someone whose spouse has died ... and the things they don't say. There is a restaurant scene in which two of Aaron's male friends spend the entire meal trying not to mention the existence of their still alive wives, lest they remind Aaron that his is dead.

The way in which Tyler evokes suburban US life is just as funny. Aaron's sister Nandina is priceless. It's the little things that matter, such as when she learns that the man she is trying to seduce (the builder who is fixing Aaron's ill-fated conservatory) is an alcoholic, and immediately gets out the juicer she has not used in months and starts fixing him exotic non-alcoholic drinks by way of temptation.

Aaron is by no means perfect, but that's part of his charm. He has a disability: he was born with one leg shorter than the other, and his car has modified foot pedals. This was one of the first things that he loved about Dorothy when they met: she never mentioned or cared about his disability other than in the most matter-of-fact way, and she never glanced at him from the passenger seat to check whether his driving was up to scratch. Of these tiny but important details are a Tyler-observed world made.

This novel's great achievement is to capture the tensions and subtleties of a married life cut short. We soon realise that Aaron has conjured up his vision of Dorothy because he had unfinished business with her. As calm and content as everything ostensibly was on the surface, in reality, over the years, instances of strain and recrimination had built up. There were so many things he wished he'd said and he wished he hadn't said, and this is all captured beautifully.

I read The Beginner's Goodbye virtually in one sitting, but that's a fairly common experience with Anne Tyler books. My only complaint? At 198 pages and with fairly big type, I would have loved it to be longer. But maybe I'm just saying that I didn't want it to end. Which is also a fairly common Tyler thing.