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!

 

Book review – Anne Tyler – “A Slipping-Down Life” #AnneTyler2021

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Book number three in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project is here already! 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.

I am convinced that my first copy of this book came free on the front of a magazine but I can’t find a note of that one in my reading journal index: I know that I bought the copy I read this week in the UK on 20 July 2002 and read it in October that year. Interestingly, having poked around in my index, I see that I read many of her books in the late 90s, so I wonder what chance I have of remembering them! I’m enjoying coming to all of these like new books, though, and at least I am still enjoying her work!

Anne Tyler – “A Slipping-Down Life”

(20 July 2002)

We’re still in North Carolina and in a small town, maybe a little bigger than the one in “The Tin Can Tree” and certainly living more centrally at first. I remembered that this was about a small-town rock star and the girls who carves his name onto herself, but I’d assumed the slipping-down life is hers and it turns out to be his. I’d also forgotten all the detail and other characters.

I really like how Tyler picks up ordinary characters, angular and bony or, here, awkward, pudgy and unfocused – until she has to be – with constantly slipping straps and waistbands which I’m sure she carries on with in later works. I also like the side characters – especially here unashamedly fat and colourful Violet, who likes to organise things and is a good friend to Evie (the good friend). I also liked Clotelia, Evie and her father’s housekeeper, who is nicely and affectionately observed – at one point thanks to her own boyfriend, she starts to define herself as Black and grow out her hair into an Afro, but she’s her own person and sticks with the family when told to leave her job. She’s also awkward and, unlike her mother, who’s a professional mourner, doesn’t provide a warm hug when things go wrong, and I like that about her.

The book has its funny moments, especially early on when Drumstrings Casey unenthusiastically does a radio interview with an equally unenthusiastic DJ. But it’s also poignant, of course, with Tyler catching tiny shifts in relationships and drawing them finely:

He never apologised. For several days he treated her very gently, helping her with the dishes and listening with extreme, watchful stillness whenever she spoke to him. It was the most he could do, Evie figured. (p. 131)

So the boy lets fate decide his life but takes an interest in home-making (and I loved the details of how they set up home, more of Tyler’s absorbing domestic details) and it’s Evie who claims her own agency, getting a job at the library, doing “Something out of character. Definite. Not covered by insurance” (p. 27) and finally …

Evie felt something pulled out of her that he had drawn, like a hard deep string, but she squared her corners as if she were a stash of library cards. (p. 152)

Like in “Tin Can Tree” and its three households, Evie has created her own family around her; like in “If Morning Ever Comes” we see one decision that changes everything and a hasty wedding, but this time view the aftermath, too. It’s a small book but a beautifully drawn and affecting one, as we watch a young woman find a meaning in life and creating something out of not very much.


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 Tin Can Tree” #AnneTyler2021

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The second book in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project. 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.. All the reviews I am alerted to will be added to the project page when I can, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Like “If Morning Ever Comes,” I bought this in April 2000 and read it in the May and like that one, I recalled absolutely nothing of this book upon re-reading it!

The cover makes more sense than the last one but isn’t hugely interesting, so enjoy my pile (not including the newest one, arriving this April 1st apparently!).

Anne Tyler – “The Tin Can Tree”

(11 April 2000)

This is another novel of small-town North Carolina, and another book with a small cast of characters observed over a few days around an upheaval in their lives.

Opening at a funeral, with the central character stumbling home down a hill, the book is set in a three-family home (I suppose like a small terrace, three separate families in a row but they can all hear each other practically breathe) on the outskirts of Larksville, the kind of town where people leave and then only ever come home for Christmas:

Whoever built their house must have been counting on Larksville’s becoming a city someday, but Larksville was getting smaller every year. (p. 8)

so the house is a way away from the town and the three families are thrown upon their own and each other’s resources, while you get the sense of the weeds and farmland encroaching on all sides.

The funeral is that of Janie Rose, the youngest inhabitant of the houses, and it’s a finely drawn portrait of the reactions and process of grief of all the characters. We mainly take the viewpoint of James, who cares for his brother Ansel, also in his 20s but seemingly an invalid by choice (he’s anaemic but won’t have his injections). At some point in the past they ran away from home, perhaps suddenly, with a family rift that’s not talked about, and running away is the other theme of the book alongside grief. The elderly sisters in their cluttered home in the middle of the row are perhaps a warning to James and Ansel of how they might get set in for life. James is rather trapped – he likes Joan, the niece of the other family, the Pikes, trying to work through their grief and keep the house going, but he can’t make Joan and Ansel like each other.

James does escape to do his photography as a job and hobby, but once again there’s a gap between the photos he wants to take and the ones he ends up taking. There are deep themes here below the surface.

There’s a brief almost reconciliation, two almost escapes and a joyful gathering at the end, but will everything settle back into its dusty patterns when they all return to their own houses?

I found a lot to enjoy in this quiet and absorbing novel, with such tight observation again.


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 – “If Morning Ever Comes” #AnneTyler2021

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The first book in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project and welcome to anyone who is reading along with me, catching up or finding this ages after. Please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads. All the reviews I am alerted to will be added to the project page when I can, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

My copy of this one was bought in April 2000 and read in May of that year (you can tell this is pre- me meeting my husband, as the gap between acquisition and reading gradually widened when I started seeing him to its current 12-13 months, where it has remained for many years now!). I recalled nothing of this book upon re-reading it.

It’s got a weird cover image of Edwardian ladies with parasols which left me confused until I was almost the whole way through the book; I still don’t really feel it’s representative of the book! It’s an American edition which I amassed when I was busy collecting her, having read my first one in 1997, but I’m not sure where I acquired it from now. Which edition did you read?

Anne Tyler – “If Morning Ever Comes”

(11 April 2000)

Although it is maybe a little patchy and uneven in places, this first novel is full of Anne Tyler’s later work, a sort of Overture (as indeed I remember Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net” being when I read that as part of my re-read of her novels). It’s quiet, it features a quirky main character who has trouble fitting into the world, and most importantly centres on a family that doesn’t talk about anything:

All I’m trying to do is stop one more of those amazing damned things that go on in this family and everyone takes for granted, pretends things are still all right and the world’s still right-side up. The most amazing things go on in this family, the most amazing things, that no one else would allow, and this family just keeps on- (p. 190)

… at which point the speaker is, of course, cut off and silenced.

People do things almost by accident, in a dream, coming back from college for an unspecified amount of time, getting married, carrying on a probably inappropriate family tradition. Most of the actual action takes place off-camera, and I recall that being a common AT feature – even when a husband comes home to collect his errant wife, our point-of-view character takes himself off and has to rely on reportage the next day. Some pivotal scenes are described directly, but they’re a side-scene to the main event (I’m thinking of the bagpiper at the time of the father of the family’s death here). It’s an effective way, if a slightly odd way, of doing things, showing how families and communities absorb events, perhaps.

Ben Joe is one of our classic male AT characters, awkward, not great with the girls, liking things to be arranged. His mother seems cold and distanced and as if she doesn’t care what happens in her marriage, and the rather marvellous Gram livens things up with her odd cooking, age-old bickering rows with her daughter-in-law and hilarious one-upmanship over grandchildren that flourishes in one scene that’s also a touching portrayal of the grandparent/grandchild relationship. People lose relatives somewhat haphazardly and Iris Murdoch might say contingency is everywhere in accidental encounters and links. And the language reads pure Anne Tyler somehow – when Ben Joe is reading all the bits of the paper really early on, we get this passage, which I think would fit into any of her novels:

He yawned and then set to picking out a ring set, ending with a large, oddly shaped diamond and a wedding band that was fine except for a line of dots at each edge that bothered him. (p. 10)

I loved all the detail, the community that remembers far back and changes (though in a different location from other books) and accepts eccentric families, incursions of strangers and their different ways of speaking and being, the details of Ben Joe’s sisters’ personalities being shown up and maintained through their lives in how they do their hair or deal with standing up suddenly while holding a needle. It’s a very domestic book in some ways, placing importance on how a family exists in a house and how the members take that with them if they ever leave.

That weird cover picture comes from one passage where Ben Joe talks about imagining his family, further back in time than they actually are, waiting for him. I still don’t think it’s that representative, but there you go! I thoroughly enjoyed this quiet novel, reading with a mounting feeling of anxiety for Ben Joe’s studies and future that is only partly resolved. I would have liked to know more of the lives of the Black families from the train, but this was a first novel published when the author was 22 and very good in those circumstances.


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!