For a couple of years in the 1980s I had a wonderful part-time job – I taught two 7th form English classes at a Catholic High School and was paid an extra four hours a week to be teacher librarian. I went to the bookshop with someone else’s wallet. I bought The World According to Garp, Ragtime, Fay Weldon and Margaret Drabble. Marist brothers, Mercy nuns and misty-eyed girls queued for The Thorn Birds. Flowers in the Attic went to the tip and was replaced with Dicey’s Song. I also bought my first Anne Tyler.
I chose her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for its title and for its cover: bentwood chairs stacked on a wooden table. Three minutes in to it and there I was, a life member of the Anne Tyler Veneration Society.
Tyler says that until her latest book, A Spool of Blue Thread (which I would also choose for its title, and I wish the edition available in NZ had the American cover), Homesick Restaurant had been her personal favourite. She said this just the once: one of the many good things about Tyler is that she doesn’t see the need to be interviewed. The one she has given, is in the Observer. Tyler tucks herself up in her gorgeous house in a desirable garden suburb in Baltimore (I wish the Observer had included some photos), speaks of her Quaker upbringing, says she’s not spiritual, leaves her windows open so she can eavesdrop on the conversations of passers-by, writes her books in longhand, types them up, records them, listens to them, edits them. She hangs out with a film club, five women who all adore The Wire. She’s widowed, she has daughters and grandchildren, she has close friends. She could not be further from being a sultry show pony. If you want to know her, read her books.
As it turns out her books are extremely hard to review. This is because all the pleasure can be found in the reading of them. You must do this carefully, when you’re properly awake, so you can treasure every moment. If you’re the sort of person who can’t wait to see what happens, then these books aren’t for you. These books are about what’s happening.
Anne Tyler has invented a genre, loosely known as the sort of books written by Anne Tyler. It’s a genre that many aspire to write but that few succeed in getting just right. They’re very American books: the English and the Americans do domesticity differently. Those peopling Margaret Forster’s Hampstead, Barbara Trapido’s Oxford are indescribably different from those who’ve settled down long ago in Tyler’s Baltimore. Though Carol Shields dipped her clever toe from time to time in Tyler’s territory, and Marilynne Robinson deals deftly with families, really only Elizabeth Strout comes close to the exquisite agony, the humour, the sadness, the sheer gut-twisting purity of Tyler’s x-ray vision.
I loved Accidental Tourist for its central premise – the fact that someone would write tour guides for those who loathe travelling was such a beguiling idea that I can’t get on a plane without thinking of it (which is better than the other option – the Everly Brothers whining their way through Ebony Eyes). It was made into an award winning movie that I wanted to rip from the screen, so fast and loose did it play with Anne Tyler’s novel. It begins:
They were supposed to stay at the beach a week, but neither of them had the heart for it and they decided to come back early. Macon drove. Sarah sat next to him, leaning her head against the side window. Chips of cloudy sky showed through her tangled brown curls. Macon wore a formal summer suit, his traveling suit—much more logical for traveling than jeans, he always said. Jeans had those stiff, hard seams and those rivets. Sarah wore a strapless terry beach dress. They might have been returning from two entirely different trips. Sarah had a tan but Macon didn’t. He was a tall, pale, gray-eyed man, with straight fair hair cut close to his head, and his skin was that thin kind that easily burns. He’d kept away from the sun during the middle part of every day.
It’s the “They might have been returning from two different trips” that punches you in the solar plexus. You’re two paragraphs in and already you know the depth of sadness that exists between this disassociated couple. You are to learn, when Tyler thinks it’s appropriate to tell you, that their young son has been killed during a burglary the year before. Sarah’s about to leave.
Couples at tough times of their lives, coping differently or not coping at all are at the centre of much of her work. She’s not depressing – there’s redemption and kindness but these are real people and Tyler wouldn’t have it any other way. Never maudlin, she depicts the loneliness that can exist even in happy partnerships. Yet she doesn’t trap her characters. In Ladder of Years Cordelia, aged 40, walks away from her family on the beach, and just keeps walking. Asked by the police to describe her – her colouring, what she’s wearing – they can’t.
A Spool of Blue Thread has already been criticised for being just another Anne Tyler, as if this time she could have expanded her horizons to include a few zombies and apocalypses. At the centre of the book is a house and, of course, four generations of a family, some of them aspirational, some of them falling by the wayside. Second generation Red and Abby hold the book and the family together. But as in all families the power base is shifting as those once strong start to become frail, and siblings as they grow realise they don’t have any more in common than simply being siblings. There’s a birth son Denny and a very casually not-quite-adopted son Stem, and uncomplicated Stem’s the easier of the two, he’s the one who comes back with his wife and children to live in the house with his parents when Abby starts to have little turns.
So much potential for simmering resentment. But Denny has always been a little hard for them to fathom:
And whenever he did come home, he was a stranger. He had a different smell, no longer the musty closet smell but something almost chemical, like new carpeting. He wore a Greek sailor’s hat that Abby (a product of the sixties) associated with the young Bob Dylan. And he spoke to his parents politely, but distantly. Did he resent them for shipping him off? But they hadn’t had a choice! No, his grudge must have gone further back. “It’s because I didn’t shield him properly,” Abby guessed.
“Shield him from what?” Red asked.
“Not from me,” Red told her.”
“If you say so.”
“I’m not taking the rap for this, Abby.”
At such moments, they hated each other.
Part of Tyler’s deliciousness is that she includes the reader in the story, as if you’re sitting at the table in her comfortable kitchen just chatting with the wisest possible friend, and, even better, one who’s prepared to be ruthlessly analytical. But also to punch you in the heart:
“You know how it is when you’re missing a loved one. You try to turn every stranger into the person you were hoping for.”
But as I type out these examples, I feel such despair. You can’t talk about her style without making her sound impossibly cosy. You cannot sum up this writing, you cannot and should not take it apart. You should just read it, and let a peace settle over you, knowing as you do that this writer not only knows everything she needs to know about everything that matters, but she also has exactly the right words to tell you about it. She is the safest pair of hands.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus, $37) is available at Unity Books.