This is the first of the Booker longlist books I’d read, and I probably would never otherwise have picked up an Anne Tyler novel. I don’t know why. I think in some undefined way I felt I wasn’t grown up enough for them.
And for the first hundred pages or so of this, I didn’t change my mind. It was good, well-written, the characters were engaging and realistic and (for the most part) sympathetic, but it was a little too…domestic for my tastes. I am not the world’s best daughter. I live a hundred miles away from where I grew up and I don’t get back that often, for no good reason; everyday life seems to get in the way.
I am, though, also an idiot. And I am extremely glad I persevered with this, because it’s good for me to be reminded, on occasion, what an idiot I am.
A brief comment on structure, first, because it’s clever but understated. The narrative isn’t linear; it largely moves backwards through time, each section being shorter than the preceding one (a structure somewhat like The Luminaries, although much less complex). This allows Anne Tyler’s narrative to comment on the power and validity of stories themselves, and especially the stories that we tell ourselves and our nearest and dearest about our, their, origins. The love story of Junior and Linnie Mae, for example, which turns out to be both less and more than we thought, and is to my mind one of the most impressive parts of the book. Or the story of Stem, which comes up in several different contexts but is integrated, easily, into the whole.
On to plot, then: Actually, in essence, this is a domestic novel. It’s the story of a family, three(ish) generations, at various points in their lives. They are remarkable only in their ordinariness. Of the four kids growing up in the Seventies, one is a bit of a drifter, one is a lawyer, the other two work in the family business. One of the characters lives in the same house from early childhood to old age; most of the others tend not to move great distances either. They go, every year, to the same beach house for a big, jolly family holiday.
And yet, and yet, isn’t it the hardest thing in the world to make that interesting? And that is what Anne Tyler does, like some kind of poet of the pedestrian, capturing the comedy and tragedy of everyday life in almost equal measure. You’ll be reading this novel, your eye casually skimming over the page, and then all of a sudden you’ll be ambushed by something familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time, and utterly true. For example:
‘Her tone was jokey, but she wasn’t smiling. She was openly studying the next-door people with a serious, searching expression, as if she weren’t so sure after all. Did they find the Whitshanks attractive? Intriguing? Did they admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or had they noticed a hidden crack somewhere – a sharp exchange or an edgy silence or some sign of strain? Oh, what was their opinion? What insights could they reveal, if the Whitshanks walked over to them that very instant and asked?’ (p142)
This is the elder daughter, wondering not-quite-idly about a family which hires the beach house next to theirs, having done so for thirty-plus years. She’s not saying that there is a hidden crack, or that it’s noticeable…but don’t we all wonder? The Whitshanks, in this particular episode, aren’t brave enough to go and find out – and that feels true, too.
Or this: ‘She saw the way salesclerks treated him lately, how condescendingly, speaking to him too loudly and using words of fewer syllables. They took him for just another doddery old man. It made her chest ache when she saw that. Didn’t anyone stop to reflect that the so-called old people of today used to smoke pot, for heaven’s sake, and wear bandannas tied around their heads and picket the White House?’ (p165) The point of view here belongs to Abby, thinking about Red, who by this time is in his seventies and so is, from one view, ‘just another doddery old man’, as she by this point could be seen as ‘just another doddery old woman’ – but of course the point is that they are both, that everybody is – if they’re lucky – never that, or never just that, to the people around them. These characters are more or less Tyler’s contemporaries, and this part of the novel felt very, very personal.
It’s little moments and observations like this, sprinkled throughout, which give the novel its heart and its compassion, and mean that I raced through it in a day and then, still thinking about it some hours later, texted my mum.
(Probably rounded down from 3.5, if I was awarding half-stars…but that way lies madness!)