The prolific Anne Tyler keeps chugging away but it seems like her punchy writing is becoming diluted. The message remains the same, no matter how old you are you can make a change in your life (usually it’s an older woman who fantasizes about leaving her unappreciative husband). The main character in this is Willa, sent scurrying to Baltimore to care for her son’s ex-girlfriend and that woman’s daughter after the ex was accidentally shot. Willa’s first husband was conveniently done away with in a road rage incident, and her second is a grumpy older man who resents Willa’s willingness to drop everything to tend to this stranger. In the end, Willa flies back to Tuscon but it seems like she’s going to leave him. Is this some sort of fantasy that all older women have?
A sixty year old man is pushed out of his teaching job and downsizes his home to a shoddy apartment to make ends meet. On the first night at the new apartment, he’s burglarized and wakes up in the hospital without knowing what happened (he was conked on the head). A swirl of family eddies around him, his three daughters and an ex-wife, his youngest daughter Kitty coming to live with him. He becomes obsessed with the fact of his lost memory of the night, then becomes obsessed with a helper woman who “keeps the memory” for her older employer. He arranges to bump into them, and begins seeing the woman, Eunice, who’s 22 years younger and (oops!) married, but he only finds out about the marriage after he’s behind her mother at the grocery and introduces himself as someone who’s dating her daughter. In the end, it’s happily ever after on Christmas Day, alone in his apartment with a good book, a chicken warming in the oven, slippers on.
Thank you, Anne Tyler, for giving me something to take my mind off the drama swirling around, something to sink into away from the day-to-day. This one is her usual formula of good writing and likeable characters. The point of view shifts as it usually does in her work from one character to the next. It’s set, as usual, in Baltimore. The story begins with a happy family, a beloved son who gets married to a woman with two kids and soon has one of their own, only his brother raises questions about the legitimacy of the baby one drunken night when the father ends up suiciding his car. Ian, the brother, ends up raising all the kids after the mother kills herself. Weird plot twist to make Ian turn super religious, but the other characters stay a very healthy skeptical. We see the kids grow up, come back to take care of Ian.
Anne Tyler is excellent when she writes what she knows, even when it’s colored with highlights from a foreign culture, like this one. An Iranian-American grandmother navigates her son’s life, dealing with her daughter-in-law and their adopted Korean baby, along with the Donaldson family who they met on Arrival Day with their own Korean adoptee. Maryam is the widowed mother, fiercely independent, who ends up falling for the grandfather of the other baby, but has an awkward rejection of marriage because she can’t imagine being married to an American. Delicious.
The blurb on this describes the narrator, Barnaby Gaitlin, as a loveable loser trying to get his life in order. What exactly qualifies him as a “loser”—is it the fact that he lives in a basement and owes his parents $9k and has a handyman-esque job?
Tyler is at her best describing the old people that Barnaby helps in his “Rent-a-Back” job. “I’m telling you: don’t ever get old! Before I started at Rent-a-Back, I thought a guy could just make up his mind to have a decent old age. Now I know that there’s no such thing… I must have seen a hundred of those sunporch sickrooms, stuffed wall-to-wall with hospital beds and IV poles and potty chairs. I’ve seen those sad, quiet widow women trudging off alone to their deaths, no one to ease them through the way they’d eased their husbands through years and years before…. those retirement watches old people consult a hundred times a day, counting off minute by minute! Those kitchen windowsills lined with medicine bottles! Those miniature servings of food, a third of a banana rewrapped in a speckly black peel and sitting in the fridge!… The reminder notes scotch-taped all over the house… the sudden downward plunges they make: snappy speech one day and faltering for words not two weeks later; handsome, dignified faces all at once in particles, uneven, collapsing, dissolving. The jar lids they can’t unscrew, the needles they can’t thread, the large print that’s not quite large enough, even with a magnifying glass… They walk down the street and everyone looks away from them. People hate to see what the human body comes to—the sags and droops, splotches, humps, bulging stomachs, knobby fingers, thinning hair, freckled scalps. You’re supposed to say old age is beautiful: that’s one of those lines intended to shame whoever disagrees. But every one of my clients disagrees, I’m sure of it… I doubt they want to be young again, but I’m positive not a one would turn down the chance to be, say, middle-aged.”
Every time I flash this book around someone tells me that it’s also a movie. It’s curious because this isn’t the best of her work that I’ve encountered, but something about it triggered a screen adaptation. Macon is a stodgy forty-something man separated from his wife after the freak murder of their son in a botched robbery. He’s addicted to systems, and when Sarah leaves him, he decides to do a bunch of weird things like shuffle around the bath with his laundry while he’s showering, sewing his sheets into a bizarre “envelope” so it’s fresh every day. He changes the dryer exhaust tube so the cat can use it to enter and exit the basement and decides to use the coal chute for the dog’s kibble. He works from home writing guidebooks for traveling businessmen to make their stay as much like being at home as possible. Rushing off to get tips for a new edition, he parks his dog in a kennel and meets Muriel, who pursues him relentlessly. They take up a relationship and Macon helps raise her son Alexander, then Sarah enters the picture again. There’s a weird trip to Paris at the end where Muriel books a ticket on the same flight, but Macon’s back goes out and Sarah comes over but he ends up with Muriel in the end?
Another beautiful book by Anne Tyler (how is it that I have never heard of her amazing writing before?!). This one from 1974 shifts the narrator among a handful of people, beginning with Amanda in 1960, gone home to Baltimore with her sister Laura to help their brother Jeremy bury their mother. Once she discovers that her mom left her house to Jeremy, the sisters depart and are only shadows in the remaining story. But we get a glimpse of Jeremy in her story, a man incapable of leaving the house to visit his mother in the funeral home, a man lost in his own world spending hours creating art in his upstairs studio while letting the elderly boarders roam around the rest of the house willy-nilly.
We get a chapter with Jeremy as the main focus but he never achieves first person narration. Next up in the narrator’s slot is Mary, a woman who arrived at the boarding house with her four-year-old daughter in tow, escaping a husband and intent on marrying another man. Her husband refuses divorce, the other man loses interest, Jeremy is blinded by her dazzling looks and comforts her as best he can. When he comes across her crying, “his voice wavered, as if he might start crying himself. Sad people are the only real ones. They can tell you the truth about things; they have always known that there is no one you can depend upon forever and no change in your life, however great, that can keep you from being in the end what you were in the beginning: lost and lonely, sitting on an oilcloth watching the rest of the world do the butterfly stroke.”
Jeremy pseudo-marries her (they pretend to get married, since she can’t, because the husband won’t divorce her) and they start to churn out babies. His art thrives, he becomes successful. The house hums along in orderly fashion with Mary at the helm. And yet, the sounds of the children and Mary’s household questions starts to overwhelm him. Eventually Mary’s husband divorces her, Mary suggests that she and Jeremy get married for real, she proposes a date and reminds him and reminds him but he never leaves his studio, so she leaves with the kids to an abandoned shack his art dealer has for his boat. Jeremy comes out once, is overwhelmed by her competency, goes back to his art and to the other elderly boarder, Miss Vinton, who shows her own predilection for solitude: “If you were to ask my vision of the future back then, my favorite daydream, it was this: I would be reading a book alone in my room, and no one would ever, ever interrupt me.”
One of the joys of reading several books by a writer is picking up the patterns between them. This one expands on the interesting scene that happens in Breathing Lessons where a woman leaves her husband’s car during a spat and imagines setting out a new life for herself. Ladder of Years begins with the ominous news clipping about the disappearance of a Baltimore housewife and we learn that Delia simply walks away from her unappreciative family to slip into a new life. First she gets a room in a boarding house and is a secretary to a lawyer in town. Then she answers an ad for a live-in woman to care for a young son and a bachelor ex-husband. Letters from her mother-in-law arrive with more sympathy than nagging to get back to her own husband. Her grumpy teenage son shows up in town one day looking for her, but she’s disappointed that husband Sam never makes much of an effort to win her back. Eventually, her daughter Susie gets married and she heads back to Baltimore for the festivities, slipping back into her old life. The writing is incredible and almost timeless—I was jolted by the appearance of a computer in the lawyer’s office, otherwise this could have been set in the 1950s or 60s. Delia’s father had died the previous year, leading to this poignant thought:
Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.
Another from Anne Tyler, but a step down from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. A mother meddles in her son’s failed marriage, trying to engineer them back together by telling each what they want to hear. This comes after a trip to a friend’s husband’s funeral where they’re required to sing the same songs they sang at her wedding 30+ years earlier. Add in a dash of eating disorder (she’s constantly worrying about her weight), falsely telling an old man he had a wobbly tire to force him off the road after he nearly ran them off, and an incident where she demands to be let out of the car and walks back to the diner where she imagines she starts her life all over again. It’s odd, but quick.
I discovered Anne Tyler by way of John McPhee and can’t believe I hadn’t heard of her before. This was a book that wrapped you in its arms and treated you like family, letting you in on all the secrets of Pearl and her three children. Her traveling salesman husband left one day and she raised Cody, Ezra, and Jenny by herself, never announcing that he was gone but simply getting a job as a cashier at a grocery store in Baltimore. Cody grows up to be a time management consultant, wildly successful but jealous of his brother Ezra for whom everything comes easily (most especially his mother’s love and admiration). Ezra, the dreamer, is happy running a restaurant in town (Homesick) although he gets a bit gloomy after Cody steals his fiancee Ruth away and marries her. Jenny becomes a pediatrician and goes through a few divorces before marrying a man with a large brood of children. In the end, Pearl dies, Ezra finds his father’s contact information and invites him to the funeral. Happily ever after, a grand way to lose yourself from the world for a few hours.