Sunday, October 21, 2012

'The Beginner's Goodbye' follows author Anne Tyler's comfortable pattern

Oh, Anne Tyler, you are so formulaic and that's why I love you. 

I just finished Tyler's latest, "The Beginner's Goodbye," (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 208 pp., April 2012, $24.95) which, true to the pattern of many of her novels, is about a Baltimore native who loses his way, has a quirky antiquated family, finds comfort in work, and is ultimately saved.

Knowing this would be the case as I started the book was comforting, like curling up under a favorite afghan with some tea (which I did, while reading it). It was a fine companion to me the last few days while I spent a lot of time feeling under the weather.

It's also a bit of a ghost story, which I decided was timely to write about so close to Halloween. The supernatural twist is, I believe, a new device for Tyler

Aaron Woolcott loses the love-of-his-life, his wife Dorothy, in a tragic accident: a tree falls on their house, upsetting a big old television that falls on and crushes her. Dorothy hangs on for a few days in the ICU at Johns Hopkins, but soon succumbs to her injuries.

Aaron is completely devastated, and pushes away many well-wishers as he refuses to leave his ruined, tree-filled house ... until a rainstorm intensifies the damage. He moves back into his old room in his childhood home, occupied solely by his sister Nandina, and reluctantly finds a contractor to fix his house (though he's unsure he may ever be able to return).

Aaron is set in his ways, a la Macon Leary, the protagonist in Tyler's 1985 novel "The Accidental Tourist." He has his routines and traditions of sorts, and is emotionally unavailable and a bit curmudgeonly to the people in his life. 

Aaron works as an editor in the family business - a publishing house that produces books that regular people-turned-authors pay to have published. Woolcott Publishing has also had some success with a series of how-to books that start with the words "The Beginner's." (Examples: "The Beginner's Book of Kitchen Remodeling," "The Beginner's Wine Guide," and "The Beginner's Book of Dog Training.")

It was while working on a title called "The Beginner's Cancer" that Aaron met Dorothy, a radiation oncologist. He was immediately enchanted by her matter-of-fact, take-no-prisoners nature. He loved that she barely - only clinically - took notice of his handicap (one leg is shorter than the other and one arm is palsied after a childhood illness). 

After four months of dating, they marry - to the chagrin of Aaron's family. Dorothy is 8 years older and clearly possesses no nurturing capabilities or social graces. She doesn't cook at all, is a "clutterer," according to Aaron, and leaves a trail of apple cores and used tissues wherever she goes, doesn't care for fashion (often wearing her white lab coat out to dinner), and cuts her own hair.

Those issues withstanding, their marriage seems to work for them. It appears to be more of a cohabitation than a partnership, highlighted with frequent but soon-forgotten arguments. Nonetheless, when Dorothy's gone, Aaron feels utterly lost. He shuts everyone out - his coworkers at the publishing house, which include his sister, his very thoughtful neighbors who keep dropping off food and old friends who keep trying to check on him.

And then one day, months after her death, he sees Dorothy standing in the middle of the street, patiently waiting for him.

He continues to feel her presence now and again in unlikely places - an alley, a farmer's market. Her "visits" don't last long. Sometimes she cryptically speaks to Aaron, and other times is silent. In any case, the visits help Aaron to work through his grief and move on.

"I used to toy with the notion that wen we die we find out what our lives have amounted to, finally. I'd never imagined that we could find that out when somebody else dies," Aaron says.

The ending is a happy one, and I won't spoil it for you. You'll likely see it coming but find it reassuring all the same. 

While the journey through Tyler's latest novel might seem very familiar, it's a pleasant one. 

Book summary from the publisher:

Anne Tyler gives us a wise, haunting, and deeply moving new novel in which she explores how a middle-aged man, ripped apart by the death of his wife, is gradually restored by her frequent appearances — in their house, on the roadway, in the market.

Crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron spent his childhood fending off a sister who wants to manage him. So when he meets Dorothy, a plain, outspoken, self-dependent young woman, she is like a breath of fresh air. Unhesitatingly he marries her, and they have a relatively happy, unremarkable marriage. But when a tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed, Aaron feels as though he has been erased forever. Only Dorothy’s unexpected appearances from the dead help him to live in the moment and to find some peace.

Gradually he discovers, as he works in the family’s vanity-publishing business, turning out titles that presume to guide beginners through the trials of life, that maybe for this beginner there is a way of saying goodbye.

A beautiful, subtle exploration of loss and recovery, pierced throughout with Anne Tyler’s humor, wisdom, and always penetrating look at human foibles. 

About the author:

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minn., in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, N.C. This is her 19th novel; her 11th, "Breathing Lessons," was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore. 

Her novels include:

  • If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
  • The Tin Can Tree (1965)
  • A Slipping-Down Life (1970)
  • The Clock Winder (1972)
  • Celestial Navigation (1974)
  • Searching for Caleb (1975)
  • Earthly Possessions (1977)
  • Morgan's Passing (1980)
  • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
  • The Accidental Tourist (1985)
  • Breathing Lessons (1988)
  • Saint Maybe (1991)
  • Ladder of Years (1995)
  • A Patchwork Planet (1998)
  • Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
  • The Amateur Marriage (2004)
  • Digging to America (2006)
  • Noah's Compass (2010)
  • The Beginner's Goodbye (2012) 

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