I am going to be honest here and admit I’m slightly freaked out by the fact that I do not remember ANYTHING about these books before or as I read them, although I have read them all at least once before. When I look on my spreadsheet of my reading diaries in order, I can look at books around the Tylers and recall at least something about them. With these, nothing at all, it’s as if I’m coming to them new. That’s not going to stop me, of course, but it is odd. I wonder when I’ll get to another one (I did sort of recall “A Slipping-Down Life“) that I remember properly.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Celestial Navigation”

(10 October 1999)

“He’s not himself at all today,” Mr Somerset told me.

People say that about Jeremy quite often, but what they mean is that he is not like other people. He is always himself. (p. 10)

We are properly and permanently in Baltimore now, in a terraced house that’s shabby as only Anne Tyler houses can be, and in fact a rooming house for a succession of temporary and more permanent residents. Something shocking has happened and two middle-aged sisters, told in bleak detail, return to the family home and their younger brother as their mother has died. Will Jeremy ever leave the house (at all?) and what will happen to him now he hasn’t got Mother to look after him? Will the new tenant, Mary, and her daughter effect any change?

You can see immediately this is a step forward technically for Tyler. There are shifting narrative viewpoints, and while this happened in “The Clock Winder” to an extent, this is more formalised here. Like that novel, it jumps forward a few months or years at a time, allowing for a longer narrative. And the first-person narration by the characters is new and self-assured.

The portrayal of Jeremy, from both internal and external perspectives, is masterful as a portrait of someone with perhaps a neurological or psychological issue of some kind (he definitely has social anxiety and panic attacks) as he zooms into a detail then zones out again at just the wrong moment for whoever is trying to engage with him. It’s also a good portrayal of the artistic process – or an artistic process – again from both the inside and the outside. 

In some respect the story fills in the gap of what happened in “The Clock Winder” when a capable, strong woman encounters an insular, rigid and limited man, although once again a gap of a few years loses the detail, tantalisingly. While Jeremy always seems to, passively, develop the resources and support he needs, Mary is forced to diminish herself to fit in, but can she ever make herself small enough? I admire her resourcefulness and her resolve to not jump from man to man, and although she makes a fatal error, I am starting to see that that allows her to be herself in her life – “you be you” – which in fact seems to be what everyone in the book ends up doing. Jeremy tries to be brave and go outside more, yet does that ultimately achieve anything? Is it better just to be as you are? I just don’t know!

And on that note, Miss Vinton seems the most content character, living alone effectively, knowing she’s lost out on various things but cherishing her youthful dream of sitting reading a book along in her room. And who is the strongest character in the book? Not the person we were told at the beginning.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I loved the detail and descriptions, but it’s ultimately a bit depressing, isn’t it? Or is that a product of the times in which I’m reading it? What did you think? 

Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!