Thursday, March 21, 2013

Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is a guilty pleasure for me - her books are such easy reads that surely something's wrong with them. I started some years ago - the first I really remember is Ladder of Years, about a woman who walks away from her family during a trip to the beach, goes to the next town, and sets herself up: a rented room, a job, a routine. From that distance she communicates with her bewildered husband and children. I liked it because what mom hasn't enjoyed the fantasy of just leaving, pulling the rug from beneath her family's expectations of her? Imagine the family car suddenly having a mind of its own, and instead of schlepping on errands, taking off for parts unknown just for the change.

Then I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and began to know Tyler's milieu - the eccentric (which means off-center) characters who bumble through life trying to be fair, trying to understand a world that fails them, trying to reconcile their own histories with who they think they should be.

Tonight I finished Digging to America, a rumination on what America is, what makes a person American, and the nature of outsiders. Two Korean baby girls arrive on the same flight to Baltimore's airport, each met by her adoptive family. Because the Americans are loud and inclusive, they pull the Iranians into association which becomes friendship. The two extended families are full of ideas about each other, assigning cultural attributes based on peeping through this window onto others' lives. They're often comical, sometimes offensive (and offended), but as their lives intertwine they become just people, close in the way family members are: a source of irritation, but like a grove of bamboo, connected underground.

Tyler's a best-selling author, which suggests that eccentricity is a refuge for many readers: a place to contemplate and make peace with our own oddities, and to come away more tolerant of others' foibles. Much light fiction is escapist: science fiction, spy stories, steampunk, vampires, a school for wizards, mysteries in which we can read at a happy distance about someone else's fatal problems. But she writes another kind of novel: reflective, in which rather than forgetting our own lives in favor of those more glamorous and dangerous, we find the poetry and humor in ourselves. And appreciate ourselves more, as she exalts failings by showing the humanity and compassion that precipitate them. Her characters may not be swashbucklers, but by their own measure they dare, and sometimes succeed. And she is kind: the highest achievement in her books is the growth and recognition of love.

If I were teaching high school English, she'd be on my reading list. Her characters don't outgrow oddity, they learn to flourish within it - surely that would be a comfort to a fifteen-year-old who's pretty sure no one understands.


  1. I'm a big Anne Tyler fan. I haven't read all of her books, but more than half a dozen. My favorite so far is "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant." Loved it.

  2. This review is perfect, and I like the last graph especially. There's something about Anne Tyler's humanity I've always loved, and her people too. The Accidental Tourist is one that sticks in my mind. Though somehow I missed Digging to America.