Anne Tyler has long been one of my favorite writers. Her stories are set in my neighborhoods and feature their eccentric inhabitants. In my love-hate relationship with Baltimore, the quirkiness of its denizens is definitely a plus. While not glossing over their peculiarities, Tyler always treats her characters with compassion.
This 2012 novel is set in motion when Aaron is visited by his recently deceased wife, who was killed when a tree crashed into their house. He mourns for Dorothy, so traumatized by her loss that he does not expect to return to the house, even once it has been restored. Only 35, Aaron displays the fussy crankiness of an old man. Stolid and reticent, he rejects offers of help, throwing out the many casseroles deposited on his doorstep, though meticulously washing and returning the dishes. This is nothing new to him. Handicapped by a withered right arm and leg, he has spent his life fending off the well-meant assistance of his mother and older sister. Dorothy's serious and independent demeanor broke over him like a refreshing wave, and he does not know how to bear life now without her.
With his sister, he works for the family-owned vanity publishing business. One of their big successes is a series of short books for beginners: The Beginner's Wine Guide, The Beginner's Dinner Party, The Beginner's Colicky Baby. Although his co-workers urge him to take time off, he buries himself in work.
When Dorothy—short, plump and plain—begins to appear, walking beside him, sitting next to him in the mall, even conversing with him, he becomes obsessed with finding the right conditions to make her reappear.
I am reminded of one of my favorite films: Truly, Madly, Deeply. Nina is so tormented by grief at the loss of her husband that he takes pity on her and returns. Her joy is gradually tempered by the day-to-day frustrations of living with someone—he keeps the heat turned way up because he is always freezing and brings his ghost friends over for movie night—until finally she is ready to move on. It is the most wrenching film I've ever seen, capturing both the reckless fun of being in love and the despair of letting go.
Aaron's story is milder, but still deeply felt. I particularly love his tenderness toward his unglamorous wife. “She had a broad, olive-skinned face, appealingly flat-planed, and calm black eyes that were noticeably level, with that perfect symmetry that makes the viewer feel rested . . . She wore owlish, round-lensed glasses that mocked the shape of her face. Her clothes made her figure seem squat—wide, straight trousers and man-tailored shirts, chunky crepe-soles shoes of a type that waitresses favored in diners. Only I noticed the creases as fine as silk threads that encircled her wrists and her neck. Only I knew her dear, pudgy feet, with the nails like tiny seashells.”
It's a delightful story, filled with misunderstandings and kaleidoscopic shifts in relationships. There is much humor, but it is never cruel. And through it all, for me at least, the familiar details of my particular world, as Aaron walks my streets, shops at my grocery, visits my Apple Store. Tyler celebrates the small events in a life, an ordinary life, such as that of the person next door to you.
Is there a novel set in your town that you particularly like?
As the year ends, it seems like a good time to consider what (or whom) we are ready to say goodbye to.
What are you ready to let go of?