Book review – Anne Tyler – “French Braid”

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While I was doing my Anne Tyler 2021 project, I heard the news that she was about to publish another novel, “French Braid”. I think I still have a paper copy coming but I managed to nab an e-book from NetGalley and plunged into it as my first March read. I’ve not seen any other reviews of it yet apart from the ones on NetGalley, so I’m looking forward to finding out what other bloggers I follow think of it. I’m mainly glad I’ve finally read it – and it was a good one, although curiously, I found myself in floods of tears at the end, even though the ending isn’t violently sad!

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 – “French Braid”

(23 February 2022, NetGalley)

“Even her father, a few yards away from her, was swimming now toward shore. A passerby would never guess the Garretts even knew each other. They looked so scattered, and so lonesome.”

How many Anne Tyler novels open in a railway station? Quite a few of them, and stations are featured in more. Here we meet Serena and James, off home after visiting his parents for the first time, with mentions of James’ large (well, not by AT standards but substantial) family meeting her next time in her memory as she thinks she sees one of her cousins, but isn’t sure. There’s then some almost-snideness about people who have let their families get away from them, people from fractured families, for Serena is in that position.

That was in 2010, and somewhat oddly, we don’t meet Serena again apart from off-stage, being discussed by her mother, one of the three siblings this book is actually about. It’s quite a common Tyler trope, at least in the later books, to start modern then step back in time to fill in the details, although here we then go past 2010 to come right up to date into pandemic times in the latter part of the book. We follow the family, two sisters and a much younger brother, as they navigate childhood and young adulthood and consider why they make the choices they make. We watch sibling rivalries overtake the two sisters and the nature of the men they marry, all the while as their mother makes her own plans to have a second life after her one as a mother and wife. What will follow into the grandchildren – what tropes and looks, and how will they be woven together – or will they be?

Unlike in “Redhead by the Side of the Road“, we don’t have authorial side-comments coming in about the characters; it’s a much more traditional Anne Tyler book in that respect, among others. There’s the family holiday showing up the characters, the escaping wife trope (although here she pretty well does escape and gets to stay escaped, and people notice, while pretending not to). We have people inheriting a slightly quirky business (here a plumbing store). Someone’s neck is spindly and sad, someone marries a person who already has a peculiar child.

There’s a person’s character being shown up through their treatment of animals (someone takes a cat to a shelter when they feel he’s cluttering up their space; this was sweetly so upsettingly done although obviously the cat will be fine; weirdly, though, all the blurbs for this book suggest he’s the family cat, and he just is not!). There’s the big house with the workshop in the basement, but maybe subtler distinctions between groups of characters; no one has weird food or clothing habits, although one character lives by inventing slightly odd things, and no one corrects anyone else’s grammar. The division is between ages of children and amount someone can be trusted to be “sensible … or wacko”, although who is which is subject to dispute.

Now, somehow this book felt like it might be her last one. It felt elegaic – was it the subtlety, was it the coming bang up to date within the pandemic? I’m not sure, and I might be wrong; I’d be interested to know what other people think. I enjoyed the layers of family and the substance of the read, quite a bit longer than “Redhead”.

Thank you to Vintage for choosing me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “French Braid” is published on 24 March 2022.


Have you read this one? What did you think?

Anne Tyler reading project round-up

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This month, I reached the end of my Anne Tyler 2021 project – re-reading up until the last two and then reading two for the first time. The new one hasn’t arrived yet so it’s time to round up what I thought of it all. I’ll go through reactions to doing the challenge first, and the way I did it, and then think about the books themselves, finishing off with my favourites.

Two books a month might be too much

Because there were 23 books to read, and they were all relatively short novels, I set myself the challenge to read two per month. Somehow I thought that reviewing them on the 10th and 20th of each month spread them evenly, which of course it didn’t: I should have reviewed on the 10th and 25th. And it was a bit much, doing two per month. I didn’t ever turn in my review late but I had a few books where I was finishing the book in the morning and writing the review in the afternoon. I think one a month over two years might have been better.

People joined in!

I’m always very relaxed about my reading challenges – even if it’s my own challenge rather than someone else’s I’m taking part in, I don’t expect people to read along at the same time, read all the books or anything. I was chuffed that my friend Ruth did, in fact, read each and every book along with me (in fact I think she was ahead of me in the reading most of the time) and plenty of people commented while some read the book there and then or later. I also included on the project page selected reviews from the time of publication which I thought were apt. It was lovely sharing this reading.

My reading experience

I’ve always claimed Tyler as one of my favourite writers – in fact I apparently told my husband this when I first met him. I did enjoy reading through her books, and my copies certainly took me back to the 20-odd years ago when I obtained them, but first of all, I just did not remember much about them (I remembered the name carved into the girl’s face in “A Slipping-Down Life”, the woman walking away from her life in “Ladder of Years”, the book series in “The Accidental Tourist” and the adoptions in “Digging to America” but otherwise not much. I found this odd, as when I looked at other books read around the same time, I could recall those a lot better! I also found a couple of them had dated too poorly – not the early ones that Tyler herself has disowned, but “Morgan’s Passing” now feels too stalkery and uncomfortable for me. I did enjoy a lot of the books and I certainly wouldn’t throw them out or not recommend them, but I’m not sure she’s one of my favourite writers. Having said that, one thing she has in common with a favourite, Iris Murdoch, is her adherence to themes and the existence of her work as an oeuvre working over those themes.

A body of work and a body of themes

Reading all the books in order, there were just so many themes or echoes. Most books had most of these, I think …

  • The over-picky person, often with weird household rituals to save time, vs the chaotic loving person, often with frizzy hair. Unfortunately, the former are (always?) male and the latter often female
  • The rebellious teen – often they even run away
  • The boy with black shiny hair who is a rock musician
  • The huge family
  • The chaotic, crumbling house
  • The peculiar job, often inherited from a parent
  • The put-upon wife who longs to escape
  • Grieving – the books after Tyler’s husband died have a long tail of grief work which is expressive and beautifully described
  • The frail child on the edge of a family or not even directly related to the family they find themselves in
  • The son of whom much was expected
  • The location in Baltimore, apart from the first few novels

These aspects, and I’m sure I’ve missed some, crop up throughout all the novels and draw them together into a world that’s recognisably Tylerish and this could be her greatest work, actually.

My favourites?

My favourites were “A Slipping Down Life”, “The Accidental Tourist”, “Ladder of Years”, “Digging to America” and “Clock Dance”. I didn’t like “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” or “Morgan’s Passing” as much as I thought I would, and I liked “Noah’s Compass,” “The Amateur Marriage” and “The Beginner’s Goodbye” more than I remembered.


Did you do this challenge with me, or any of the books? Which were your favourites and did you change your opinion on any of them? I’m staying with American 20th century writing for my next challenge, Larry McMurtry, but in the meantime, thank you for reading or otherwise taking part in Anne Tyler 2021!

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Redhead by the Side of the Road”

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Goodness me, I’ve delayed writing this review because it’s the last one in my Anne Tyler 2021 project – I’m not sure when my review copy of her newest book will arrive but I will read and review it as straight away as I’m allowed to and add it to the project page. I will try to write up a musing on the whole project on the 20th, so this is just my reactions to “Redhead by the Side of the Road”.

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. Oh, and I DID share my new project and its project page on my State of the TBR December post (at the end) – anyone up for that one who hasn’t replied already?

Anne Tyler – “Redhead by the Side of the Road”

(01 April 2021)

“Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.” (p. 151)

Micah lives alone, running a computer first aid kind of company on his own. He has his routines and his girlfriend, who he fell for for her kindness but with whom he has settled into a Tyleresque rut. When a young man turns up on his doorstep, there are some unintended consequences, but it’s really small ripples in the pond of his life, and he mishandles the situation, not for the first time. Will Micah’s life ever actually change? Are we set on a course we can’t escape when we leave home and become ourselves?

First off, this is a small book. It’s only 178 pages long and actually has five blank leaves in the back of the book to pad it out! That made me sad, as I tend to enjoy her more substantial ones best (I loved “Clock Dance” last month for example). Some people whose reviews I’ve read have complained about the “redhead” not being an actual person, but that wasn’t a problem for me – I liked how we followed Micah on his runs and experienced his mis-reading of the street furniture every time (although why does she have him running in jeans or jean shorts? No every-morning runner would wear those).

It did seem like a bit of a best-of, with those themes we’re so familiar with – man living alone with his routines; big family with one member different and large, chaotic gatherings in a cluttered house; slightly odd jobs; sparsely furnished basement rooms; the son of the family of whom things were expected; the teen who comes to stay; the (same) teen who has run away from home; interacting with older folk; the contrast between the fussy people and the lax people; the overhearings of other people who could make up a Tyler book of their own.

Then there were echoes of other books in particular – Brink has decided to “take a break” from college and go back home, like Ben Joe in “If Morning Ever Comes” and there’s a funny niche local publishing company which has put out Micah’s book, like the ones in “The Accidental Tourist” and “The Beginner’s Goodbye”. Differences include the weird feeling of zooming out from Micah’s perspective a couple of times to see him from a more omniscient narrator viewpoint, moving around his world and seeming really sad and pathetic. There’s also the weird, depressing extended scene in ch 5 where Micah wonders how long it would take him to notice if a nuclear bomb had dropped on the neighbourhood and extinguished all life apart from his. This ties in with my feeling of a link with “Noah’s Compass” as, although there is some sort of redemption at the end (or is it just care for someone who’s had an incident?) it seems like Micah will end up alone, rattling around in his basement flat.

You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man. Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off. He has nothing to look forward to, nothing to daydream about. (p. 167)

The authorial voice intruding here feels so final, so dismissive of a character who’s long been a stock person in her novels. I am afraid I was left at best flat after reading this, at worst, a little depressed. I’m going to go off and read all the reviews of this I saved when it came out but I was reserving it for this month and the end of my project.


Have you read this one? What did you think? And are you joining my new challenge for 2022?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Clock Dance”

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Well, we’re on to the last two books in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and the two that I’d not read previously – how exciting! Fortunately, I really enjoyed this one, a big return to form for me and also a nice, long, satisfying read. I’ve very much cherished this run through Tyler’s novels and I’m not sure quite when I should announce my challenge for next year – what do you think?

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 – “Clock Dance”

(16 April 2020)

“My father was so mild-mannered that he thought it was impolite to pick up a telephone in mid-ring,” she said. “He always allowed a ring to finish before he answered.”

“Ha,” Ben said.

“It was marry such a person or be such a person, I used to figure,” she said.

“You might want to rethink that,” Ben told her.

“Excuse me?”

“Those aren’t your only two choices, you know.”

“Well, it can seem that way when you’re eleven,” she said. (p. 114)

Interestingly, this book came out about the same time as Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered” (which I bought, read and reviewed as it came out in 2018), and they both featured a middle-aged woman named Willa, of all things, who ends up caring for a grandchild (or should that be “grandchild” in this case?). How odd is that? Anyway, I loved the Kingsolver but I also loved this, and both fitted well in the author’s oeuvre as a whole, so I wouldn’t like to call it between then.

Here we follow Willa episodically, first in a chaotic household with her younger daughter, a passive, kind father (though he does seem to be one of Tyler’s “corrector” types with household systems on the go; she doesn’t really labour this, though) and a really quite scary, emotional mother who is always flouncing off out of the picture, leaving Willa to try to cope. As a result, she thinks that you can either be the quiet dependable one or marry one, and she’s spent her life, after one exciting event where she’s led to believe she’s at risk on a plane, and her subsequent choice to marry against her parents’ wishes, fading into the background and helping everyone at her own expense.

We hop through the years with Willa in an episodic structure until she’s married to her second husband (who is very much a “corrector” and who we will her on to escape from) as she deals with a call from her son’s ex-girlfriend’s neighbour: Denise has been accidentally shot in the leg and there’s no one to look after her daughter, Cheryl. Cheryl isn’t a blood relation of Willa but she flies out from Arizona back to Baltimore and fills in a caring role happily (Cheryl is one of Tyler’s at-first-glance unprepossessing, lost children, but she proves to be reliable and delightful) and slotting into the neighbourhood chorus of slightly odd people who live on the street and form a sort of found family.

When Denise recovers and Willa might no longer be needed, no one wants to see her go. An accidental revelation sees her fleeing, but Peter has lost his patience and refuses to collect her from the airport, while the lovely widowed doctor, Ben, gives her a lift at a horrible time in the morning. The end of the book is, for once, perfect (Tyler has had a habit of disappointing me with her protagonists’ choices). Oh, and there’s a charming dog who comes through fine, and an incidental cat, ditto.

There’s a really interesting sub-theme about how we grieve (how did I not see this theme running through so many of her books? Another legacy of reading them all), with Willa’s father explaining how he breaks the day up into chunks, while Ben has a different approach, in this thoughtful and carefully observed book full of thoughtful people making careful observations. I think in that quote above, Tyler’s still espousing the theme I’ve found throughout her books, that it’s OK to be who you are. Willa might not actually be that person, and she might be just about to find that out.

Have you read this one? What did you think? And when should I share my new challenge for 2022?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Vinegar Girl”

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The last book in my Anne Tyler 2021 project that is a re-read, and I only read it in January 2019 (but amusingly, as ever, couldn’t remember that much about it, though it came back to me as I read it). For the second book this month and the remaining one in December, I’ll be in new reads territory! As for the new one, coming out in the spring of next year, I have done something I’ve never done before as far as I recall, and asked the publisher for an advance readers’ copy. I have been told I’m on the list, so fingers crossed it will arrive and I’ll get it read and reviewed before the end of the year. I will of course then wait and buy a paperback when it comes out, to complete my collection.

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 – “Vinegar Girl”

(15 February 2018)

From time to time Kate entertained the notion of looking for work elsewhere, but it never came to anything. She didn’t interview well, to be honest. And anyhow, she couldn’t think what she might be qualified to do instead. (p. 19)

Quite a short one (though not short enough to be a Novella in November), this is of course Tyler’s retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”, although as with my last review, I’m not going to go through the comparison point by point. It’s very Tyler, anyway, from the man with weird house systems (here, the father, who insists on having the same meal every day and has a very odd way of dealing with a) dishwashers and b) wine) to the quirky job situation (Kate works at a kindergarten but all the teachers are elderly and all the assistants young and it’s some kind of private enterprise) to the odd church (Kate’s uncles, in a strange denomination), the excitingly rebellious teen boy (now a vegan rather than a rocker, though) and the sisterly relationship. In fact, now I look at the whole set of books, Pyotr’s foreignness, feelings about America and accented English are also a thread that runs through many of the books.

I loved the family relationships, the overbearing aunt who is shown as almost pathetically holding the family together through her sheer force of will and the more retiring uncles. In fact, pastor Theron is one of Tyler’s characters who have somehow let life pass them by. It’s interesting that we see Kate’s father, a classically disapproving, correcting Tyler character, through his own eyes and his upsetting relationship with his now-dead wife, so he doesn’t mean to correct, but just to help, and she takes it the wrong way.

Kate’s final big speech, about how men are trapped in needing to pretend to be OK and women get to learn about relationships from an early age, and how she is merely letting Pyotr into “her country”, as well as her actual country, seems very moving this time around. An enjoyable book, not always believable in terms of the situation, but we go to Tyler for the life details, not the believability of the big picture, I think.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “A Spool of Blue Thread”

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We’re definitely in remembered territory in my Anne Tyler 2021 project now; weirdly, I bought this in 2015, and first read it in November 2016, having acquired “The Beginner’s Goodbye” that year, too. I must have missed that one coming out, I suppose.

Now, I did have to hurry this one a bit, as you can tell if reading this on the day by the fact that I haven’t published this review until the afternoon, rather than having it scheduled and ready to go in the morning, but it didn’t feel like such a return to form as I thought last time. To be honest, I didn’t love the structure and felt it dragged it back a bit. However, last time I read it, I thought it was going to be Tyler’s last novel apart from “Vinegar Girl”; now I own the next two and know there’s one coming out early next year. So maybe that coloured my first read of the novel.

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 Spool of Blue Thread”

(29 December 2015)

In the Whitshank family, two stories had traveled down through the generations. These stories were viewed as quintessential – as defining in some way – and every famly member, including Stem’s three-year-old, had heard them told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times. (p. 51)

In this longer novel than she’d written for a while, we’re thrown straight into Red and Abby Whitshank’s life with a snapshot in 1994 when their disappearing son, Denny, phones to announce somewhat randomly that he’s gay. Red barks, Abby fusses, and there they are in summary. Not only does Denny follow the Disappearing Child Tyler trope, he is skinny with lank black hair – tick! And there are four children, and Abby and Red live in Red’s family home.

After going through a lot of Red and Abby’s later parental years, where their children grow and have their children, they decline and care has to be sorted out (another Tyler theme of course), we then hop back and forth, to their courtship and then to Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie. Bits of contemporary life are threaded in, Denny coming and going, sibling rivalries and upsets, cousins following family trends and some lovely circular links around particularly parenthood or lack of, and the descriptions of the house. Character traits continue through people’s lives – for example Abby is a keeper of secrets even though she seems so chatty and intrusive.

I think one of the themes is the memories that disappear when we die. Linnie and Junior’s family life is unknown by the time Red and Abby are in their prime, but their section fills in details of their parents that their descendants never knew. Family stories have an importance only to the teller – Abby constantly starts the story of when she fell for Red but their section starts with her particular sentence when we know she will remember it no more. It’s a clever way to do it, but I’m not sure it’s that engaging. It’s also a good social document of course, of Depression era poverty and 50s consumerism, and the way family relationships develop over time.

Other Tyler tropes include of course the family home, changes to it, upkeep and then slow decline. An older man moving into an apartment is getting more and more common, and aged family dogs feature once more. Abby is a common Tyler woman, with her “orphans” invited to family meals and occasions and her fussing and trying to get information out of people, and her son Stem is at one stage the stalk-necked, pale and silent child who crops up a lot. Son-in-law Hugh doesn’t have a huge role but is one of the people who flits from job to job and is currently running a Thanksgiving-themed restaurant. There’s even one of those journeys, right at the end, where you feel Tyler could have told the stories of any of the other characters flitting around in the sidelines – or maybe she already has. The religion side has retreated again: Nora, wife of their youngest son, is a member of a church but doesn’t force anyone else to go or introduce it into their lives, just smiles serenely and cooks and cares and somehow incites people to rage.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Beginner’s Goodbye”

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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?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Noah’s Compass”

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I thought I was up to books in my Anne Tyler 2021 project that I actually remembered, but this one really drew a blank again, even though I read it a full five years after “Digging to America” (I was wondering why there was such a big gap, then I realised that that was my last QPD edition, paperbacks that used to come out at the same time as the hardback release, whereas this is a standard paperback, so I’d have had to wait for the paperback of “Digging” then the hardback of this one to come out before I could get my hands on the paperback. That probably interests only me, but there we go!). My review on this blog was … short and not particularly sweet. Here you go. I haven’t unfortunately really changed my mind in the intervening decade!

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 – “Noah’s Compass”

(12 January 2011)

He was familiar with these flashes of hatred. (He’d been married two times, after all.) He knew enough not to act on them. (p. 188)

Having really enjoyed “Digging to America”, I’m afraid this one was a bit of a disappointment. 61-year-old Liam downsized from work, downsizes himself into a small flat and mulls over his disappointing career, two marriages and three daughters. The first night in the flat, he experiences an act of violence which he can’t remember, he obsesses about trying to remember it and then, having seen an elderly man’s aide helping him to remember basic facts and ways to live, obsesses about her, tracks her down and basically stalks her (shades of “Morgan’s Passing” but this was published in 2010) until she befriends him and he hopes to develop a romance (she’s 38. Hm.).

There’s interest in the classic Tyler tropes of the second wife taking on the first marriage’s child, the overly petty man fussing about grammar (a less-central character I can’t discuss without spoiling the plot), a frizzy haired woman with drooping bra straps and a weedy small child. The religion theme is ridiculous but not mocked as such, and the youngest daughter Kitty is portrayed well, with her standard-issue dodgy boyfriend who reaches back to the earlier books. There are some funny points, and Liam at some stages does appear to be one of Tyler’s “men with a system”:

“I’m not living miserably.”

She turned and skinned him with a glance. “And don’t think I can’t see what you’re up to,” she said. “You’re trying to come out even with your clothes.”

“Come out …?”

“You suppose if you play your cards right, you won’t have to buy more clothes before you die.” (p. 74)

But it’s just not very interesting, really, and ends up tailing off.

In another Book Serendipity moment (Bookish Beck collects hers regularly), in one flashback, Liam gets his driving licence and is off immediately to where he chooses to go, free at last; the same scene is repeated in Anita Rani’s “The Right Sort of Girl” which I’d finished a few days before reading this (but I’m reviewing for Shiny New Books).

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Digging to America”

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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?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Amateur Marriage”

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I read my second August Anne Tyler 2021 project books the weekend before this review was due, after almost catching myself out with “Back when we were Grownups“. This was the one I always thought I hadn’t liked so much and which saw the beginning of a perceived decline in her work, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time around. It’s the second of my QPD volumes, bought (or arrived) on 11 February 2004. I haven’t yet digitised my reading journal for that year, so I can’t tell when I read it, but it would have been a few months after that.

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 Amateur Marriage”

(11 February 2004, Quality Paperbacks Direct)

By nature, Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter while Michael proceeded deliberately. By nature, Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. (p. 45)

I think this book is quite unusual in Tyler’s oeuvre in that there’s a sort of chorus of the Polish-American community in which Michael Anton and his mother run a general store – and this set of friends and neighbours is poignantly there right through this family saga, which takes us from Michael meeting Pauline as youngsters to old age. As was so common in the Second World War, a brief flare of attraction and the emotion of someone going off to war get mistaken for something that can be turned into a lasting love, and we have the usual Tyler pairing of one light and one heavy character, mismatched and rowing, never knowing if this is going to be the marriage-ending row or whether other couples have the same tribulations.

We see it from both sides, stodgy Michael, but he will always know how to keep the furnace going / passionate and headstrong Pauline who feels trapped by her family but has such a wonderful way with people. And then their daughter gets darker and darker and walks out and there’s all sorts of other Tyler stuff like a woebegone child and the good children vs the bad children, everyone ageing in the stops and starts we’d lost for a little bit, and always that chorus circling.

The scene is set from the very beginning – Pauline is nothing, not even Ukrainian and Michael gets somehow tricked into signing up, they have a rocky courtship when Michael is more careful of his mother than his girlfriend, and Pauline almost misses seeing him go away. Then we find out later she starts to lose interest then can’t bring herself to dump a wounded man. Perhaps not the best start, but Tyler is so good at laying out those tiny clues. We go through their life, their children, their aspirations for a new house, following the path of so many American couples, but with Michael always feeling that everyone else has got the hang of things and they’re the only amateurs left.

In an echo of the last book, someone reappears from the past, will there be some kind of circling back, some kind of resolution? If the last book was about surviving the death of your spouse, though, this one is about surviving a marriage that never really gets going properly.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

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