Book review – Anne Tyler – “A Patchwork Planet”

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Well, suddenly I’ve read 14 books in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and I only have 9 to go – how did that happen? And I’m pleased to say that even though I remembered absolutely nothing about this one, I heartily 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 – “A Patchwork Planet”

(01 September 1998)

Oh what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know from birth? Don’t they ever feel that zingy, thrilling urge to smash the world to bits? (p. 21)

Narrated in the first person by Barnaby Gaitlin, the black sheep of a famous philanthropic family who has eschewed the family “business” to strike out on his own, and working for a very Anne Tyler-ish company which helps the mainly elderly with small errands and handyperson jobs, we find a man who hasn’t really lost his way, but is living his truth, simply, but then finds himself getting involved with a much more conventional woman who he meets on a train. Well, he doesn’t really meet her – he effectively stalks her (but only the once, so I didn’t feel as uncomfortable with this one as with “Morgan’s Passing“) when he sees a mysterious stranger ask her to take a package to Philadelphia. He’s going there himself, as the only two major things he has in his life are his vintage car and his daughter, Opal, now living with her mum and stepdad in the city.

Opal is one of those classic rather stolid Anne Tyler children, and other classic points are the sibling rivalry between Barnaby and his successful brother, and all the dilapidated houses his clients inhabit (there’s even a sick room or two on a sunporch, which we have already encountered in “The Clock Winder”. There’s also the ‘loser’ in his leather jacket living in a rackety apartment, and as well as the slow-moving and conventional Sophia, a spiky and almost unattractive co-worker to whom Barnaby’s heart might really belong. There’s lots of wonderful observation of the relationships between parents and their adult children.

Like others of her novels, there are other stories she could have broken off to tell, like Barnaby’s Aunt Eunice who ran off with a stage magician but came home when she realised she didn’t know what to cook him for dinner. And there’s a theme of things just happening and people being who they are – at one point, Barnaby says, “Maybe that was the secret, I thought. Let things come to you when they will, of their own accord. I went back to bed and slept like a baby” (p. 161). Interestingly, he becomes “a whole other person” when he gets together with Sophia – but does he want to be?

This book is dedicated to Tyler’s late husband, and it has a melancholic air to it – lots of the clients of Barnaby’s employer are elderly and widowed, or they pass away themselves during the course of the book. She’s almost clinical, through Barnaby, in her dissection of the way they take on reorganising the house just before they pass away, and on the little details of elderly life, lines of pill bottles on windowsills and ageing pets. Although it’s a hopeful book, I think, and full of kindness, this does stand out in it. The characters are less the organised and the disorganised we’ve found in other books and more the products of their histories and houses.

A lovely book with an open ending which I really did enjoy.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Ladder of Years”

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Starting the second half of my Anne Tyler 2021 project and this is more like it – first off, I remembered the main premise, second off, I loved this. Loved it. Interestingly, this was the fourth Anne Tyler I read – I must have bought it in 1996 (I didn’t write the date inside it!) as I read it in April 1998, having bought it, “The Accidental Tourist” and “Saint Maybe” in 1996 (according to my notes in my reading journals0 and read “The Accidental Tourist” in the January (I’d been loaned “Earthly Possessions” in August 1997 and then read “Morgan’s Passing” from the library in September 1997). And I can see why I then claimed Tyler as a firm favourite and kept on reading her (this is the last white-spined one in the pile in the photo – I then moved to buying her new novels as they came out from QPD (Quality Paperbacks Direct – remember them? getting the paperback when the hardback came out, but it was inconveniently hardback sized?).

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 – “Ladder of Years”

(1996)

Sometimes she felt like a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges. (p. 23)

Starting off with a newspaper cutting about the disappearance of a woman, a wife and mother, whose eye colour no one is sure of and whose outfit is described randomly, we meet Delia, who has just Had Enough after two humiliations in a row and walks off down the beach, in her swimming costume, with only a beach bag (that handily contains the holiday money). She thinks she’s only going back to the holiday house where they are with her two sisters and the kids, but then hitches a ride and she’s off.

A new life beckons and I absolutely loved all the details of her settling into her small-town existence. I’ve always loved small-town novels, from Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” to most of Larry McMurtry, the Big Stone Gap novels, “The Library at the Edge of the World”, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend“, etc., etc., and this fits into that mould – she finds a place to stay, a job, there’s the diner, the friend made in the town square … Gradually, as Delia (or as she styles herself, Miss Grinstead) makes a new personality for herself however much “she had noticed that Miss Grinstead was not a very friendly person” (p. 101), she becomes known and loved in the community – did she mean to do that? Various models of marriage and divorce make themselves known to her subtly, and her family starts to slither back into her life – with one unexpected ally.

Delia even gets a little holiday in, experiencing the seaside and even its music being exactly the same as on her fateful family holiday. But then the family starts to draw her in; there’s a wedding to attend, and when she gets home for that and finds a tearful bride and a groom with a trial to overcome (this is a very funny part of the book), is she going to be able to peel herself away again or was she more wanted and needed than she thought. And has she changed:

She had never realized before that worry could be dumped in someone else’s lap like a physical object. She sould have done it years ago. Why did Sam always get to be the one? (p. 288)

What’s interesting about this one is you have Team Organised and Team Flighty – according to Team Organised anyway – but Delia is organised and efficient at running her family and an office, whereas Team Organised, represented by her husband and her second employer, are, frankly, pissy and over-critical. So it’s easy to swap allegiance, but I did notice that.

Other typical Tyler touches – an old house that is dropping to pieces, although this one has a redo that threatens to update it thoroughly, an extended family living together, an older brother with an usuitable girlfriend who already has a child (this is taken directly from the last book, but with less disastrous consequences). Delia and Eliza live in the family home still. There’s a photographer although he’s retired and no one has taken on his business out of a sort of life-drift, as far as I can tell. And the family of Grinsteads, in the end, is much like the family in “Saint Maybe” and others where things are just not discussed:

you do things such a different way. Not mingling or taking part, living to yourselves like you do; and then you pretend like that’s normal. You pretend like everything’s normal; you’re so cagey and smooth; you gloss things over; you don’t explain. (p. 322)

At the end of the book, Delia has a choice to make. She doesn’t make the choice I would choose for her, but I can cope with that. What an excellent read this was!

Animal note: There are two cats in the book. One is elderly and there is a poignant moment, but both survive and flourish (phew).

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Saint Maybe”

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I’m over half way through my Anne Tyler 2021 project and I really enjoyed this one after the so-so feelings about the last one. I did mark when I bought this Vintage copy (I’m into the pile of white books in the middle of the photo of the Anne Tyler Pile), and it was on 18 August 1996. Again, I didn’t remember much about it, although I did recall there was an embarrassing church (and there was!) and it’s still not where I got the idea to keep all my kitchen cupboards neat with the tin labels all turned out (where WAS that, then?).

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 – “Saint Maybe”

(18 August 1996)

There was this about the Bedloes: They believed that every part of their lives was absolutely wonderful. It wasn’t just an act, either. They really did believe it. Or at least Ian’s mother did, and she was the one who set the tone. (p. 8)

So here we have another family with a Family theme that keeps them together – and in fact we see that Mrs B is a somewhat heroic figure, plodding on through her family’s increasingly chaotic and fractured life, later on in terrible pain from her arthritis but hiding it gracefully.

Ian, the central character, has a fairly standard life, with a steady girlfriend and plans for higher education. Then his brother brings home a bright and breezy girlfriend who already has two children, Ian clearly falls for her, too, and then when he thinks the scales fall from his eyes (it’s never entirely clear what happens) he tells a tale to his brother that destroys the family. Instead of leaving, he becomes the family carer, atoning forever for a sin he committed in good faith, part of the aforementioned embarrassing church, which is all about such atonement, and doing good for the community.

Life wears on, year after year. We see the children grow up and branch out, as Ian’s sister produces an endless stream of her own (named alphabetically, in a nod to Tyler’s characters who like to do things to simplified but odd plans). There is an animal death, but in a long story with a family dog, it’s expected and not too traumatic (though still of course sad and marked).

I loved the character Rita, the home organiser, who comes and sorts out the house, removing all those things that are so familiar to everyone (I don’t think this family is such a chaotic one as some in Tyler’s novels: we all have sad mugs waiting behind the usual ones in case they’re needed, don’t we?). The embarrassing church is seen through Ian’s and the children’s eyes and not mocked as such, but kindly indicated as being odd and off, but providing a refuge to lots of people. In fact, Ian must make a choice with regard to the church, and does so: he’s another character who seems quiet and ineffective but has a core of steel.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Breathing Lessons”

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Wow – we’re into June in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and almost half-way through the project (there are 23 books and this was number 11. Can you believe that?) We’re using a Vintage edition here but amazingly and unusually, I did NOT write the date of acquisition in this book! However, my trusty Index to my Reading Diaries has me having bought the book some time in 1997, although I read it in July 1998, so I’m thinking perhaps I bought it that year. Who actually now knows?!

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 – “Breathing Lessons”

(1997/98)

Same old song and dance. Same old arguments, same recriminations. The same jokes and affectionate passwords, yes, and abiding loyalty and gestures of support and consolations no one else knew how to offer; but also the same old resentments dragged up year after year, with nothing ever totally forgotten: the time Ira didn’t act happy to hear Maggie was pregnant, the time Maggie failed to defend Ira in front of her mother, the time Ira refused to visit Maggie in the hospital, the time Maggie forgot to invite Ira’s family to Christmas dinner. (p. 158-9)

First off, I will say that I did enjoy this book apart from one point which I will address later but don’t particularly want to dwell on. I did not remember this one again, and in fact had it mixed up with “Ladder of Years”, in the sense that I thought it was the one where the woman runs away from her life, but this is the one that’s a day in the life of a woman who very much runs towards her life, and everyone else’s, and, to be charitable, tries to do good in those lives.

Last read (“The Accidental Tourist“) we had a central character who was a very organised man, having to deal with two loves of his life who were serendipitous, accidental and vague in their planning. This time around, we have Maggie as the central character, who does things on a whim and is never hugely organised, her husband Ira tutting and hissing around her as if he can’t bear to see someone so random. Like in “Searching for Caleb”, this mismatched pair have a daughter, Daisy, who only wants to be neat and tidy and organised, like everyone else, and to make it to a good college to study an academic subject. And like several of the books, but from a different angle, Jesse, their son, is the good-looking failed rock star who picks up a follower, marries her and then has a ramshackle sort of marriage and baby until that fails. There’s also a couple of siblings living with their elderly parent, in the rest of Ira’s family, and a small family owned shop that passes down the generations almost by accident, like the photography business in Earthly Possessions, and Maggie has a number of siblings although this is not laboured. There’s a road trip to a life event, too, as in “The Clock Winder”. Lots of nice links to the rest of Tyler’s oeuvre so far.

Ostensibly, we have a day where Maggie and Ira must drive to her friend’s husband’s funeral, and back again, before taking their daughter to college the next day. But we open with their marriage and patterns, and then flip into a vague plan to go and search out the mother of their granddaughter, now living with her mother, somewhere sort of along the way, with side excursions and a long section reaching back into history, a common trope Tyler uses, always to good effect. By the end, we know their marriage well, the moments of support, the long marriage characteristics pulled out in the quote at the top of this review, and there is a moment of perhaps hope, or unity. Is there?

So we have a long marriage and a short one, but the main point is that Maggie cannot help a) meddling in the lives of those close to her, and b) getting involved in some way in the lives of strangers. She tells a waitress in a random diner too much information and causes an elderly Black man to become confused about the state of his car and find out his life story while embarking on a side road trip. Everything is slightly confused by Maggie’s habit of smoothing things over with half-truths and lies, of saying what the other person wants to hear, which she can’t see as meddling but everyone else does:

She was in trouble with everyone in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn’t seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the word were the tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines – something like a poorly printed newspaper ad – and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place. (p. 312)

I feel like Tyler might be on the side of the Organised People in this one. She goes quite far in proving Maggie’s fecklessness and inability to do the right thing, and this is where I diverged from liking the book: she introduces three animal deaths, at least two of which just serve to show Maggie’s ineptitude and the serious effects it can have, and this upset me, especially as it’s not something she often does (OK, there’s obviously a child’s death in “Accidental Tourist” and other novels but this is small pieces that could be lifted with no effect). I don’t want to discuss that further, but it left a slightly bad taste.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Accidental Tourist” #AnneTyler2021

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My second May read for my Anne Tyler 2021 project and we’re back to the standard Vintage editions which now alternate with the big Quality Paperbacks Direct editions I sometimes had of later books. Interestingly, when I was talking with my husband about how I’m having trouble remembering a lot of these novels, and also engaging with a couple of them, he was surprised and said, “Really, when I met you [20 years ago] you were all about Anne Tyler”. And I suppose I did buy most of these copies 20 years ago. Of course I’m continuing with the project and I found a lot to engage with in this one, even with its dark heart of tragedy which creeps out through the pages to affect everyone’s lives.

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 Accidental Tourist”

(12 January 1996)

It occurred to him (not for the first time) that the world was divided sharply down the middle: Some lived careful lives and some lived careless lives, and everything that happened could be explained by the difference between them. But he could not have said, not in a million years, why he was so moved by the sight of Muriel’s thin quilt trailing across the floor where she must have dragged it when she rose in the morning. (p. 254)

Of course we have the famous eccentric, Macon Leary, who hates to travel but writes travel books for a living (for people who hate to travel, and I love it when he meets a couple of his fans during the novel), and his special ways of organising the house which, when his wife ups and leaves, combine to bring about his literal downfall and his moving in with his sister and two brothers, all equally weirdly over-organised (I have never forgotten Rose’s extreme alphabetisation of her kitchen, which always makes me feel better when I’m turning tins the “right way round” in the cupboards).

So we have one of those large eccentric families grown up and without the influence of their parents, although it turns out they do have a mother who is alive and well and odd in her own way (notably, she has rushes of enthusiasm for different hobbies, like lots of the men we’ve met before in Tyler). Like in “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” we also have little snatches of side-stories, notably from Macon’s neighbour. We have our grey-eyed, blond-haired serious men/brothers and our woman from a rackety background who is just about getting by. Macon, though, gradually comes to see, through his friendship with the plucky (and pushy: I’d like her to meet Morgan from “Morgan’s Passing!) Muriel, that there might be another, different way to be. Meanwhile, Edward is one of the best-described dogs in literature and Macon’s publisher, Julian, is a wonderful character who we do come to love.

But lying beneath all of this is the death of Macon’s son, Ethan, in a random incident which makes no sense. Edward was his dog, Sarah and Macon have been pulled apart rather than together by the death, and in a very poignant scene, his cousins still miss him and think about him. So Macon is stuck because of his personality but also because of this awful event, and devastatingly we see how someone who appears just eccentric and closed off is just as destroyed by this as someone who might express their emotions more. As Tyler seems to say quite often, being yourself is enough and people need to try to understand other types of people.

There’s an interesting serendipity with the last novel I read (“Mamma”), where Macon finds life isn’t as tidy in life as in a movie when a couple splits up (in “Mamma”, Joanna thinks no one in a novel would act like her), so that’s one for Bookish Beck! For animal lovers, Edward and also Helen the cat do just fine.

So a comic book that’s also moving, a book with a dark heart that shadows it, darker than Tyler will, I think, go for a good while yet. I did enjoy it.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” #AnneTyler2021

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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?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Morgan’s Passing” #AnneTyler2021

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The second of my two April reads in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and an older copy again (this is the last tatty old US copy in the pile you can see to the left, then we go to the more modern UK copies) which I bought in April 2000. I did remember this – although I fear I remembered enjoying it more in those days than I did this time around – insofar as I remembered it was about a deeply eccentric man who went for walks around his neighbourhood.

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 – “Morgan’s Passing”

(11 April 2000)

“Um … what do you do for a living, Mrs Gower?”

“I’m Morgan’s wife for a living.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Yes,” Bonny said, “but do you see that it’s a full-time job? It keeps me busy every minute, I tell you. Oh, from outside he seems so comic and light-hearted, such a character, so quaint, but imagine dealing with him. I mean, the details of it, the coping, stuck at home while he’s off somewhere, wondering who he thinks he is now. Do you suppose we couldn’t all act like that? Go swooping around in a velvet cape with a red satin lining and a feathered hat? That part’s the easy part. Imagine being his wife, finding a cleaner who does ostrich plumes. Keeping his dinner warm. Imagine waiting dinner while he’s out with one of his cronies that I have never met – Salvation Army bums or astrologists or whatever other awestruck, smitten people he digs up.” (pp. 157-158)

This rant from the central character’s wife comes during a scene in which she expresses surprise that his friend Emily, the first speaker, doesn’t think he’s a rabbi or a Greek shipping magnate. Because Morgan’s modus operandi is to stride around in various costumes, pretending to the people on his circuits that he is someone very much other than who he is. This is amusing, as is the realisation that he’s not the doctor he appears to be in the exciting childbirth scene that opens the book. However.

I know we need to read books with an eye on when they were written and published – otherwise we’d never read all those early to mid 20th century novels full of casual racism and anti-semitism. And I’m certainly not into cancelling or censoring. However, Morgan is basically a liar (OK, fantasist, OK, the lies are not particularly dangerous except for one, a Chekhov’s gun that is never fired) and a stalker, and he basically persuades a young woman into something by repeatedly telling her she’s going to do it until she gets worn down. That’s not a very “now” concept and it does feel uncomfortable these days (however, he does get his comeuppance – in what I feel is a link to Tyler’s idea that you just have to “do you” whoever and however odd you are, the chaos and people that Morgan runs away from seem to follow him and weigh him down yet again).

Looking at the positives, it’s an inventive and clever book, and good technically, too. Tyler is doing her thing of looking at something from another angle, so here we have the father of the big family trying to deal with a sea of girls, and we also, while having an omniscient narrator, see things from shifting viewpoints – we look at Morgan helping the young couple as in a film, then we’re in his life, then in theirs, and then, in a clever shift, we find Morgan telling the young woman, Emily, about events in his life when his sister’s beau returns (the returning beau is another Tyler theme, though not in every book; we also have Morgan picking up different hobbies every year, in addition to his habit of dressing to copy someone he’s noticed, outside his general dressing up, which is something a few male characters have done so far, and the big, rambling and multi-generational house, seen notably in The Clock Winder and If Morning Ever Comes) Bonny is one of those “infinitely expandable” and capable, if shabby, women that Tyler delights in.

It’s also of course minutely observed. Morgan has his moments of depression and inability to cope, and things often seem insurmountable for several of the characters.

He could hear bare feet pounding upstairs, water running, hairdryers humming. the smell of percolating coffee filled the kitchen, along with the crisp, sharp smoke from his Camel. Oh, he was hitting his stride, all right. He had managed it, broken into another day. (p. 33)

Morgan’s an odd one (in more ways than one) – we don’t get a complete interior picture of him like we do of the eccentric Jeremy in Celestial Navigation, seeing him from the outside through various other characters and through his actions in an almost filmic way.

So a decent read and a good story, but I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable reading Morgan stalking the young couple he becomes obsessed with (there’s also a kiss when one participant has a cold – the most shocking thing in the whole book!). Still worth a read as part of her oeuvre and for her obvious delight in creating Morgan’s different personas as he lopes down the street, greeting his acquaintances, shifting persona as he goes.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Searching for Caleb” #AnneTyler2021

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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!

 

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Celestial Navigation” #AnneTyler2021

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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!

 

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Clock Winder” #AnneTyler2021

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And we’re back to the Anne Tylers I Do Not Remember. However, I am heartily enjoying my chronological journey through her novels, and to be fair, I probably haven’t read this one since 1995. This is a copy reissued by Vintage and I would have bought it from Waterstone’s in Birmingham City Centre (still there), I would imagine. It was before I started my reading journal (in London) so no previous review to dig out at all.

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 Clock Winder”

(13 May 1995)

We have finally (pretty well) moved to Baltimore, where all (?) of Tyler’s remaining novels were to be set, although there are still scenes in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Mrs Emerson, an elderly (? – is she? Her eldest son is in his 30s near the end  of the book, which finishes in 1970) recent widow who likes to keep herself forever young, high-heeled and pink and gold, for her distant many children, sacks her handyman on a whim and hires Elizabeth, who is passing through vaguely and helps her move some garden furniture. Elizabeth resists attempts to make her into an indoors maid and finds that, here at least, she’s good at something, calm and practical, and resolves to stay until she (inevitably) messes something up.

Elizabeth gets sucked into the Emerson family, which apparently thrives on drama, but really only the kind of Anne Tyler, relatively quiet, drama, and draws close to two of the sons, creating a rivalry which can only cause harm. We have all the usual fine detail, a big, scruffy house becoming one of the characters, again. Then the inevitable happens, something goes badly wrong, everyone convenes at the house (I did have trouble keeping the three sisters straight in my head) and Elizabeth returns to her religious family and drifts into a new job. It’s worth noting all the fine details of dealing with an invalid – here, two valid invalids, unlike the one in “The Tin Can Tree” but finely drawn.

Will Elizabeth return when Mrs Emerson falls ill? The children vie to cajole and control her back – will she stay sucked into their orbit? It’s a big family like in “If Morning Ever Comes” and, like that family, lacking a father – I’m not sure if that will be a theme through the books as the other two novels have the usual complement of parents.

I love Elizabeth’s eccentricity, carefully observed and celebrated for her difference, and the portrayal of Matthew in particular hardening into a man too set in  his ways typical of Tyler’s novels. Like his “weird” brother Andrew,

He liked things the way they were. Change of any kind he carefully avoided. (p. 200)

The section in letters is really nicely done and I liked the shifts in location after the claustrophobic small-town life of the last two novels.

Another shocking event occurs which is so creepy in the set-up – in fact in someone else’s hands this could be an incredibly creepy book full stop. We hop through time to the present, where Peter, the youngest son, might have finally come into himself thanks to another, very different, outsider woman, Andrew is somehow no longer weird, perhaps cured by using one of the items he collected for so long, and Mrs Emerson, pink and gold, still presides.


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!

 

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