Anne Tyler's new novel, her 20th in half a century of published work, is set to be her last, according to the author. Alice Munro, prior to winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2103, made a similar pronouncement regarding her own most recent book, Dear Life.
Whether these resolutions hold fast, there's a tidy symmetry in Tyler, now in her mid-seventies, rounding off her career in this way. Internationally successful, her work is widely read and hugely loved. Yet, unlike Munro, Tyler's quiet reliability as a storyteller can underwhelm, rather like her description of an interior in the Baltimore house in which her latest work is set: "It was an attractive room, spacious and well designed, but it had the comfortable, shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long since stopped seeing it."
It's unlikely Tyler's many fans will be disappointed with the novel which pulls together several generations of Abby and Red Whitshank's family in the imposing house that Red's father Junior designed and prized above all else, now known in the neighbourhood simply as The Whitshank House.
And yet, though construction – both of a building and the ideal family inhabiting it – is the book's preoccupation, its own structure and chrono- logy is frustratingly haphazard, with the most significant section appearing more than two-thirds of the way in.
The myth of a united family is central to Abby's vision but there is also the inference that solid, dependable Red was not her first choice. The family's discordant dynamic is established from the first chapter. It is 1994 and Denny – Abby and Red's eldest son – is making a rare phone call home. The product of an interfering social worker mother and a father who is disappointed he didn't join the family firm, Denny is the wayward, elusive maverick who floats in and out of the family unit, his three siblings having stayed close, married, raised children.
Questions of ownership and belonging are raised throughout the novel: the shock of a concealed parentage, the manipulations in relationships, be they with children, lovers, properties.
The author's omniscient commentary pervades: "Like most families, they imagined they were special", although she subtly breaks down antagonistic first impressions to leave the reader momentarily bereft when one of the characters dies suddenly halfway through.
Tyler also writes movingly of the early stages of dementia and its fierce denial, of orphanhood and widowhood. There are welcome cameos from Red's snooty sister and an obnoxious dinner guest.
The most memorable characters in the book turn out not to be Abby and Red, but the ambitious Junior Whitshank, the carpenter from the wrong side of the tracks who worked his way through the Depression, saw a house and craftily appropriated it from its original owners, his employers, making it his own, and his wife Linnie-Mae, remembered by Abby as shy and self-effacing.
The history of their courtship and subsequent marriage is a blazing back story worth trekking through the book's more mediocre chapters for, and a reminder that at their best, Tyler's portraits of American lives are very fine indeed.
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