No, the point is, Anne Tyler is both a hero and a villain to me. I know nothing about her personally, except what I've read umpteen times on the blurbs - that she was born in 1941, has written a dozen or more novels, lives in Baltimore (where she sets her books), and that in her usual author photograph she looks witchy and a bit like Beryl Bainbridge. To put it bluntly, then, Anne and I are not like that. But every three years or so, she produces another novel - usually about a Baltimore family of eccentrics contending painfully together like ferrets in a sack - and she brings out all this tortured ambivalence in me, loving her and hating her at the same time. When I put down each book, I say aloud, "That's magnificent. That ought to win the Pulitzer Prize," and I really mean it. But inside I scream, "Damn you, Anne Tyler, whoever you are. How dare you make me feel so shallow?" And I mean that, too.
So that's the problem. In books such as The Accidental Tourist (1985), Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) and the consummate Breathing Lessons (1988), Anne Tyler deals with the connectedness of people through time, the ties that are beyond love, the acceptance of emotional destiny. And the thing is, some of us don't want to hear this. Some of us count Thelma and Louise among our favourite films - we want to break away from everything (especially people) and fly off the edge of a cliff in a big green car. But Anne Tyler is so damned wise, we all know she's right, which is why I pummel feebly at her books, sobbing "I hate you, I hate you", and drop to the ground exhausted by passion. In the last book, Saint Maybe (1991), the hero, Ian, finds himself at the age of 19 raising three small children, sort-of by default, and after a few years he says to somebody, "I'm wasting the only life I have! I have one single life in this universe and I'm not using it!" To which the other person replies, "Well, of course you're using it. This is your life." Which is too bloody sad, if you ask me.
I should say at once that Tyler is not sentimental or yucky about these families of hers - these Baltimore clans of Tulls and Learys with giveaway formal first names like Macon, Cody and Porter, who grow older (and worse) alongside one another. Most family get-togethers in Tyler's books are ruined by selfish sibling grudges and over-compensating mothers, the bickering rarely stops, and I am trying to remember whether any character in the last five novels has said "I love you" (I'm pretty sure they haven't). In her new novel, Ladder of Years, the heroine, Delia, absconds from her family (grumpy doctor husband, horrible teenage kids) and sets up a new life from scratch - a theme not unlike Thelma and Louise, you might think, but without the police helicopters, handguns and pop music. And for a while she gets away with it. When Delia thinks of home - and secretly she waits for the family to retrieve her - the only member of this haphazard, unloving household she misses un-reservedly is the cat.
As for the marriages in her books, Tyler always makes me think of the best advice I ever had: viz "Leave him and get a car." All Tyler's husbands are creations of genius: joyless, bewildered, thin-lipped men, trapped by their inability to communicate. They belittle their wives by correcting their English: they use phrases such as "if you say so" and "is that right" (with a perfectly judged absence of question mark). In Breathing Lessons, the brilliantly conceived Ira Moran sits exasperated while his wife Maggie compulsively spills her life story to strangers they meet on a car journey - but inwardly he accepts that she gets along better in the world than he does. If they are shopping together and Maggie joshes with check-out clerks, "I suppose you expect me to pay for these," Ira clucks his disapproval. But the clerk usually laughs and says something like, "Well, that thought had occurred to me," which leaves Ira all at sea.
Luckily, the grammatical pedantry of these chaps also serves a worthy purpose in the books - alerting the reader to every choice of word. In Ladder of Years, Delia's employer is a teacher who rails continually about the decline of the language. "Bit by bit," he says, "more and more people will say 'bemused' in place of 'amused', thinking it's just the 20-dollar version, the same way they think 'simplistic' is the 20-dollar version of 'simple'." But as Tyler well knows, the wrong word is generally more revealing than the right one. Towards the end of this new book, a subsidiary character apologises for not phoning back sooner, "Wife's mother died," he explains breathlessly. "Spur of the moment." Now there's a woman after my own heart.Reuse content