Friday, May 11, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

Aaron Woolcott works at the family business--a vanity press that has had success with a series of books titled The Beginner's . . . . (Colicky Baby, Wine Guide, Monthly Budget . . . insert any topic here). As a result of a childhood illness, Aaron's right arm and leg do not work completely, and he walks with a cane. He also has something of a stutter--and he works and lives with his over-protective sister Nandina. He is grieving his wife Dorothy, who was killed when a tree fell on their Baltimore home. Yes, Aaron is a quintessential Anne Tyler character.

In the book's first sentence, we learn not only that Aaron's wife is dead, but that she has somehow reappeared. Through his interaction with her post-death incarnation, Aaron tries to work through not only the issues in their relationship, but the issues he has had in all his relationships--with family, coworkers, friends.

Although Tyler includes her usual melange of oddballs, the focus is squarely on Aaron; for me, this singular focus makes the book less interesting than some of Tyler's other works (e.g., Digging to America, Ladder of Years). Further, while the book has a sweetness about it, the insights Aaron finally achieves through his ruminations on his marriage and the appearance of his wife's spectral self seem fairly obvious (he refuses care from others because his mother and sister overcompensated for his disabilities by mollycoddling him; "we go around and around in this world").  The book is pleasant enough, but it's not Tyler's best work.

Favorite passages:
That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: Your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

I wanted the jolts and jogs of ordinary life. I wanted my consonants interrupting my vowels as I spoke, my feet stubbing hers as we hugged, my nose bumping hers as we kissed. I wanted realness, even if it was flawed and pockmarked.

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