We’re on to the second book for March in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and yet another one I didn’t remember. I have a different copy to the one in my picture here, as that one was a) falling apart and b) a gift from someone no longer in my life, who noted it was quite hard to find – Vintage reissued it in 2016 and I picked up a copy to replace my old one. My original copy was bought for me and read in December 1998.

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 – “Searching for Caleb”

(03 March 2021)


“Our family is very close knit, a fine family, we have always stuck together, but I don’t know, periodically some … explorer sets out on his own.” (p. 15)

I’m really starting to see variations on a theme here: primarily the big family with its own special “ways” and suppression of any kind of discord, disagreement or shock. Here we have the Pecks, four generations of them, looking at their ageing and the ageing of the top figure on the family tree. Different from usual is that they all seem to live in houses on one plot of land. It’s the usual stuff: things happen and no one talks about them (this gives one of the major plot points, too) and anyone who leaves the family is never mentioned again. In this one, we are accompanying the people who have escaped the family – Duncan, his wife, and her grandfather, also the paterfamilias. And we also have Caleb who, in a book set in the 1970s, left the family in 1912.

Daniel’s hobby is searching for Caleb, following up leads and going to visit people with the only person who seems to understand, Justine. She’s a fortune-teller (though the back of the book says she can’t remember the past and I don’t see where that comes in in the book!) and has adapted to tagging along with Duncan as he grows bored of his job and goes on to the next one and the next, “using up” his relatives and their social capital as he goes. Justine and Duncan’s daughter, Meg, has reverted back to Peck type and only longs to be settled – however, in an interesting twist, we witness just what she ends up settling for.

This is a complex book in terms of structure, starting off as a family saga then darting around quite a lot, especially when we find out what happened to Caleb. There’s an incidental character who drops in now and then and might be pivotal or might not. And will the Peck way of doing things finally claim Justine and Duncan when they run out of options? I did guess what solution might work for them, but it was satisfying to see it happen.

I loved the subtle ageing and shifts of the family, the bachelor brothers’ sudden shift to a joke present after years of dullness and Justine’s own sudden breakout from her patterns. Characters turn out to be central who were pushed off to the side and there’s a commentary from the Black servant (there are two instances of difficult language around race but in the thought processes of characters from long ago when the terms would have been used; the Black characters are fully formed and respected as usual).

There’s a sadness about the buttoned-up conformity of the family members which suggests the other theme I am finding in Tyler: it’s best to be your own self and not try to change to match others. This is expressed poignantly by Daniel near the end of the book:

“In my childhood I was trained to hold things in, you see. But I thought I was holding them until a certain time. I assumed that someday, somewhere, I would again be given the opportunity to spend all that saved-up feeling. When will that be?”

Nobody answered. (p. 346)

An uneven, interesting structure, a mystery that’s solved satisfactorily and independent characters who refuse to conform made this a more upbeat read than the previous one. Oh, and the cat’s OK.

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!