Hooray – I knew I remembered this book in my Anne Tyler 2021 project, recalling clearly that it involved a man losing his wife in a house accident. When I read on the blurb that she comes back from the dead, I remembered that bit, too. But whereas last time I read this book, in 2015 (my review here), I really didn’t like it, and found it depressing, this time I really enjoyed it!

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 – “The Beginner’s Goodbye”

(21 January 2015)

For an instant she was standing under the shelter of my arm, and although there was not one single point of contact between us, I felt I was surrounding her with an invisible layer of warmth and protection. (p. 139)

The first thing to say about this book is that I was shocked to read the protagonist, Aaron, is around 35 at the start of the novel – yet I found myself surprised by that last time, too, and had forgotten in the intervening six years. Last time, I was horrified at Dorothy’s dying at my exact age; this time I’m of course well past that and can look at their relative youth more benignly. I was already married by the time I read it last time, but it’s worth noting that I have managed to mellow in my issue of having trouble reading books with marital troubles in once I’d got married. Not that there are particular huge issues.

Anyway, it was interesting to consider whether Dorothy did come back from the dead or whether Aaron imagined her. Early in the book, he sees people blanking him because they see them walking along together, but maybe they’re just blanking him out of concern at not knowing what to say. He says himself later in the book he’s not sure, but then she tells him things he thinks he didn’t know … but did he, deep down?

Aaron and his sister work at the family firm, and Aaron is married to matter-of-fact doctor, Dorothy. Then one shocking day, there’s an accident at the house, he’s bereaved, his house is wrecked and he faces a life back in the family house in his old bedroom. But it’s better than fending off well-meaning casserole dishes and invitations to dinner, right? When Dorothy reappears, he gets the chance to reassess his marriage, but how will this help with the ages of life stretching before him?

I loved the set-up at the family publishing firm, a vanity press that also puts out the “The Beginner’s x” series of books to help people through life. Charles, the only staff member who has a “normal” family life, is always suggesting marketing ideas and I loved the interactions and staff meetings, the little awkwardnesses of office life. The story we get in the middle of the book of Aaron and Dorothy’s courtship is lovely and touching, and I love Dorothy’s uncompromising attitude to life and logic (her aggressively ugly haircut reminds me of Bitsy from “Digging to America”). I also really loved the quirky characters of Aaron’s sister Nandina and his repair contractor with a heart of gold, Gil.

Of course there are classic Tylerisms to enjoy. Nandina is still living in her and Aaron’s parents’ house and she plays the bossy sister well. As well as the haircut point above, there are other reminders of the rest of the oeuvre – there’s a revelation about the central marriage late on that echoes the one in “The Amateur Marriage” and of course Aaron is now an amateur at bereavement, too, after never quite getting a hold on being married. There’s an echo of “The Accidental Tourist” in the publisher and their series of books, too, and of course it’s yet another family business that an ailing father has persuaded his offspring to join. We’re in Baltimore, we’re in a first person narrative, which we haven’t had for a while, but works really well here, and we have the sudden narrative jumps we often find in Tyler, here at the end.

Unlike the previous novel, there’s hope at the end of this one, not sad resignation, and while that’s quite unusual, it’s refreshing and positive. New life can happen, and we can move on, even after the devastation of bereavement, which is so beautifully told in this book:

“In a way,” I told Peggy, “its like the grief has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It’s still there, but the sharpest edges are … muffled, sort of. Then, every now and then, I lift a corner of the blanket, just to check, and–whoa! Like a knife! I’m not sure that will ever change.” (p. 177)

So, a change in my attitude on this one, which I am glad about, as I went into it a little unenthusiastically, sure I wouldn’t think much of it.

Have you read this one? What did you think?