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

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The first May read for my Anne Tyler 2021 project and I have a really odd American Penguin copy from the 1980s that I bought in 1999 – I’m pretty sure I bought it from the big indoor-outdoor book market place in Greenwich as it has initials pencilled in under the price (£1) and I remember they had a system where they sold lots of people’s book stock and wrote them in a ledger with the initials when you bought one. Anyway. Of course I didn’t remember any of it and I think I enjoyed it but it was a bit of an odd one.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”

(15 August 1999)

… her family seemed too small. These three young people and this shrunken mother, she thought, were not enough to sustain the occasion. They could have used several more members – a family clown, for instance; and a genuine black sheep, blacker than Cody; and maybe one of those managerial older sisters who holds a group together by force. (pp. 107-108)

We open the book with Pearl on what she considers her deathbed, thinking about her life and her three children in particular. We explore their lives, very different, their disappointments in Pearl’s view, and drop down to one grandchild’s viewpoint in a messy, multifaceted novel that seems to be, if it’s about anything, how to live in your community or not touch it at all.

Anne Tyler really does fit a lot into this book. There’s a small family and a large family, a few oddball men who live solitary existences, not one but two families constantly moving house, a mother in a decaying house, and then at one point a few scenes that could easily be expanded into another whole Anne Tyler novel each, as if she just had too much stuff in her mind to shoehorn into this one. We leap around different characters’ viewpoints and different generations, and certainly back and forth in time, whether that’s the narrator starting almost at the end then jumping back to describe the middle generation people’s lives, or moments of recollection and reflection when old, old photographs are examined and re-examined. The focus even zooms in and out at times, almost in a filmic way; this, too, is done with great skill and technical ability, of course, with one scene returned to again and again, from different angles, with different details noticed.

Tyler does mix around her themes a bit, too. The angry matriarch, Pearl, is very handy around the house, almost like an older version of Mary from “Celestial Navigation” and of course like Elizabeth in “The Clock Winder”. I do like these capable women. The book is very competently done, too, very believable, shifting in the omniscient narration between characters’ viewpoints, and shifting from looking down on a scene to being in someone’s head:

all at once [he] had the feeling that the ground had rushed away from beneath his feet. Why, that perky young girl was this old woman! This blind old woman sitting next to him! She had once been a whole different person, had a whole different life separate from his … (p. 264)

She’s also very good, as in “The Clock Winder”, on the details of increasing infirmity, here a gradual loss of sight that Pearl tries to conceal, Ezra enabling this.

The odd thing about this book is the unlikeableness of most of the characters. Pearl is really horrible to her children, although Ezra redresses this at the end and points out it’s a few occurrences over the years, compressed in memory (and the book?). We are told once in her words how it sort of came over her and was unstoppable (“‘Yes, yes, I’ll stop,’ I think, ‘only let me say this one more thing, just this one more thing …'” (p. 140)), and I wonder if she’s the model for later not so nice women. Her oldest son, Cody, is pretty horrible, too, especially to his brother, with whom he has an acknowledged and bitter rivalry, and his son, and Ruth seems to be promising but literally fades away. Jenny never fully comes to life to me, apart from when she comes into relief betraying someone not once but twice, but maybe she wants it that way, again fading into the background, and Ezra, the lonely male of so many Tyler novels, does something pretty unforgiveable to the eponymous restaurant earlier than he should.

It’s not a bad book, but it’s not my favourite Tyler, seemingly too baggy and bulging with extra stories to sit that comfortably. What did you think?

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

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

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Morgan’s Passing”

(11 April 2000)

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

“I’m Morgan’s wife for a living.”

“Oh, I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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