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?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Back when we were Grownups”

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It’s time for my first August Anne Tyler 2021 project and I finished it yesterday – oops! Interesting fact, though: this must have been the book that I had just acquired when I claimed to my then friend, soon to be boyfriend, now husband Matthew that Tyler was, well I’m going to say ONE OF my favourite authorS, given the date inside the front cover. So I’m pleased that, while as usual remembering nothing of it, I absolutely loved this one. Oh and this is the first of my QPD Tylers, visible in the pile combining the frailty of a paperback with the size of a hardback …

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 – “Back when we were Grownups”

(05 July 2001, Quality Paperbacks Direct)

She loved these children, every last one of them. They had added more to her life than she could have imagined. But sometimes it was very tiring to have to speak in her grandma voice. (p. 49)

We open with Rebecca at a picnic, wondering how she came to be who she is. Who she is now: a 53 year old larger woman, a mother, stepmother and grandmother, widow, carer and party-giving company owner with a penchant for flowery and embroidered clothes and a good relationship with her many tradesmen. But her life sort of split off when she met a man at the very party venue she now hosts, the bottom floor of one of those run-down terraced houses in Baltimore that most Tyler books are set in, chucked her high-school boyfriend, flunked out of university and joined his huge and ramshackle family.

The complicated Tyler family is in full flood in this one (three stepdaughters and a daughter, each with a partner of some sort and children, plus her late father-in-law’s 99 year old brother and her late husband’s younger brother and a family retainer who ends up being invited to as many parties as she helps clean up after). Because Rebecca, Beck to her family, has got into the habit of hosting parties for every family occasion, coming out with a rhyme for each, the backbone of a family who, as is often the case, take her for granted. Could she walk out of this life, she wonders, as the phone rings again? (No). Could she move back to her home town and her bickering mother and aunt? (But she knows no one there now). Can she find her way back to where her life path split? (Sort of, but does she want to?).

There’s no sloppy one here, just the organised one who keeps everything going. We get glimpses of the routines that held other Tyler characters together, from the man who dresses his son in tomorrow’s clothes for bed to the man who makes a batch of the same dinner every Sunday to feed himself through the week. But things are more nuanced now, and those are only glimpses (maybe she’s saying women don’t go like this as it does tend to be the men). Other Tyler standards are a weedy child of a new partner, a family house that’s subsumed an incomer.

In “Patchwork Planet” we noticed the book was dedicated to Tyler’s late husband and this novel is in part a meditation on grieving, with old uncle Poppy constantly reciting the verse he wrote for his wife’s funeral and Rebecca musing on her loss of Joe, only six years into their marriage. This is made more poignant by knowing the background, even though I don’t usually need to know the background.

Will Rebecca find herself and indeed reclaim her name (one family member does use it, we note)? Will Poppy make it to his 100th birthday? Will Rebecca trace that old boyfriend? But most importantly again, will she reclaim herself? A lovely novel, full of characters and colour, little moments of observation, and also very funny.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

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?

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