The first May read for my Anne Tyler 2021 project and I have a really odd American Penguin copy from the 1980s that I bought in 1999 – I’m pretty sure I bought it from the big indoor-outdoor book market place in Greenwich as it has initials pencilled in under the price (£1) and I remember they had a system where they sold lots of people’s book stock and wrote them in a ledger with the initials when you bought one. Anyway. Of course I didn’t remember any of it and I think I enjoyed it but it was a bit of an odd one.

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 – “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”

(15 August 1999)

… her family seemed too small. These three young people and this shrunken mother, she thought, were not enough to sustain the occasion. They could have used several more members – a family clown, for instance; and a genuine black sheep, blacker than Cody; and maybe one of those managerial older sisters who holds a group together by force. (pp. 107-108)

We open the book with Pearl on what she considers her deathbed, thinking about her life and her three children in particular. We explore their lives, very different, their disappointments in Pearl’s view, and drop down to one grandchild’s viewpoint in a messy, multifaceted novel that seems to be, if it’s about anything, how to live in your community or not touch it at all.

Anne Tyler really does fit a lot into this book. There’s a small family and a large family, a few oddball men who live solitary existences, not one but two families constantly moving house, a mother in a decaying house, and then at one point a few scenes that could easily be expanded into another whole Anne Tyler novel each, as if she just had too much stuff in her mind to shoehorn into this one. We leap around different characters’ viewpoints and different generations, and certainly back and forth in time, whether that’s the narrator starting almost at the end then jumping back to describe the middle generation people’s lives, or moments of recollection and reflection when old, old photographs are examined and re-examined. The focus even zooms in and out at times, almost in a filmic way; this, too, is done with great skill and technical ability, of course, with one scene returned to again and again, from different angles, with different details noticed.

Tyler does mix around her themes a bit, too. The angry matriarch, Pearl, is very handy around the house, almost like an older version of Mary from “Celestial Navigation” and of course like Elizabeth in “The Clock Winder”. I do like these capable women. The book is very competently done, too, very believable, shifting in the omniscient narration between characters’ viewpoints, and shifting from looking down on a scene to being in someone’s head:

all at once [he] had the feeling that the ground had rushed away from beneath his feet. Why, that perky young girl was this old woman! This blind old woman sitting next to him! She had once been a whole different person, had a whole different life separate from his … (p. 264)

She’s also very good, as in “The Clock Winder”, on the details of increasing infirmity, here a gradual loss of sight that Pearl tries to conceal, Ezra enabling this.

The odd thing about this book is the unlikeableness of most of the characters. Pearl is really horrible to her children, although Ezra redresses this at the end and points out it’s a few occurrences over the years, compressed in memory (and the book?). We are told once in her words how it sort of came over her and was unstoppable (“‘Yes, yes, I’ll stop,’ I think, ‘only let me say this one more thing, just this one more thing …'” (p. 140)), and I wonder if she’s the model for later not so nice women. Her oldest son, Cody, is pretty horrible, too, especially to his brother, with whom he has an acknowledged and bitter rivalry, and his son, and Ruth seems to be promising but literally fades away. Jenny never fully comes to life to me, apart from when she comes into relief betraying someone not once but twice, but maybe she wants it that way, again fading into the background, and Ezra, the lonely male of so many Tyler novels, does something pretty unforgiveable to the eponymous restaurant earlier than he should.

It’s not a bad book, but it’s not my favourite Tyler, seemingly too baggy and bulging with extra stories to sit that comfortably. What did you think?