Finally I’m up to books in my Anne Tyler 2021 project that I actually remember! Hooray! In fact, I first read it when I had my blog on LiveJournal, so there’s a short review of it on this blog, the first time my first reading of the novels appears on here (I did much shorter reviews back then!). This is the last of my QPD editions, having been loyal to them through four of her publications.

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 – “Digging to America”

(16 August 2006, Quality Paperbacks Direct)

She was an optimist, Maryam was. Or on second thought, not an optimist: a pessimist. But her life had been rocky enough that she faced possible disasters more philosophically than most. She had had to forsake her family before she was twenty; she’d been widowed before she was forty; she had raised her son by herself in a country where she would never feel like anything but a foreigner. Basically, though, she believed that she was a happy person. (p. 12)

I said in my original review that this was a return to form after a couple of disappointments. Well, I didn’t find the previous two disappointing this time around, but this one was certainly an outstanding novel and one I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the diversity of it and the subtler use of those kinds of characters Tyler’s earlier and mid-career novels stuck with.

We first meet the Donaldsons, all together en masse at the airport, ready to welcome the baby they’re adopting from Korea. Bitsy is an aggressively makeup-less weaver who determines to keep Jin-ho’s name and dress her in Korean costume. But on the edges of the group are the Yazdans, a smaller family, just Maryam, who emigrated from Iran, her son Sami and her daughter-in-law Ziba. Having assimilated themselves as far as they can, they change their child’s name to Susan, share the childcare and put her in kindergarten as soon as possible. The added layer of cultural complexity is handled very well and subtly and I particularly liked the brave, strong Maryam, trying to guess her way through all the weird Americanisms, but coming across as intimidating at the same time. She’s so careful that even speaking of trying for a baby seems indiscreet to her, and I love the quote about her at the top of this review. But she also gets fed up sometimes of being a sort of walking Iranian exhibit for everyone, although later Bitsy’s dad Dave in particular makes a real effort to understand cultural aspects such as food and traditions, and Dave and Connie make her feel more relaxed with their simple kindness.

The two families become interwoven after Bitsy tracks down the Yazdans after the day at the airport. Soon they’re having annual Arrival Day parties and leaf-sweeping events. But Bitsy’s mum is unwell and that gives a melancholy counterpoint to the story, as well as offering an interesting plot point later on. I liked the sections from the point of view of Susan and Jin-ho later on in the book.

In terms of Tyler themes, apart from the everyday minutiae of life which is her specialism always, there’s a tantalising set of people coming through the airport, perhaps glimpsed later, too, all of whom could be characters from her other stories. Bitsy has been through one of the too-fussy men with her first husband, Stephen, and that’s the only example of one of them in the book for once. The different thing here, as in “The Amateur Marriage” is the deep exploration of a non-fully American culture: I particularly liked here the description of Maryam’s friends slipping in and out of Farsi and English, swapping as they come to a word in the opposite language which then carries on until another word flips the narrative.

The title phrase comes from the idea Susan and Jin-Ho have that while they “dig to China”, children in China and Korea are “digging to America”. Of course, that wouldn’t immediately strike me. as in the UK we dig to Australia if we are digging a hole to the other side of the world!

A sweet and understated ending to the book makes it a really special one in Tyler’s oeuvre.

Have you read this one? What did you think?